Dubai Expo 2020 offered conflicting figures for the number of worker casualties during the fair construction on Saturday.
In a statement that said that number of workers who died was three, the Expo apologized and sadi that a previous figure of five dead workers was a “mistake.”
Authorities had imposed a media blackout on any figures for construction-related casualties for months.
Dubai Expo 2020 was designed to improve the image of the country abroad and draw millions of visitors to the run-up to the $7 billion fair rising from the desert outside Dubai.
The United Arab Emirates has long faced criticism from human rights activists over poor treatment of the low-paid migrant laborers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who are crucial to the country’s economy.
At a news conference Saturday morning, Dubai Expo spokesperson Sconaid McGeachin said without hesitation that “we have had five fatalities now,” adding, “you know, that is obviously a tragedy that anybody would die,” she said after pressred to provide information about the matter.
But just after 5 p.m. Saturday and hours after an Associated Press report quoted McGeachin, Expo put out a statement that said: “Unfortunately, there have been three work-related fatalities (and) 72 serious injuries to date.” Just after 7 p.m., Expo issued another statement apologizing for “the inaccuracy.”
Expo said that its 200,000 laborers who built the vast fairgrounds from scratch worked over 240 million hours.
Over the past year, authorities had not offered any overall statistics previously on worker fatalities, injuries or coronavirus infections despite repeated requests from the AP and other journalists.
The European Parliament had urged nations not to take part in Expo, citing the UAE’s “inhumane practices against foreign workers” that it said worsened during the pandemic.
The resolution last month said that businesses and construction companies in Dubai Expo are “coercing workers into signing untranslated documents, confiscating their passports, exposing them to extreme working hours in unsafe weather conditions and providing them with unsanitary housing”.
McGeachin also acknowledged that authorities were aware of cases involving contractors “withholding passports,” engaging in suspect “recruitment practices” and violating workplace safety codes.
“We have taken steps to ensure those have been addressed and very much intervened in cases on that,” she said, without elaborating.
Laborers in the UAE are barred from unionization and have few protections, often working long hours for little pay and living in substandard conditions.
Most foreign workers, hoping to earn more than they would at home, come to the UAE and other oil-rich Arab states through recruitment agencies, part of a sponsorship system that ties their residency status to their jobs and lends their employers outsized power.