Migrant workers at some of the UAE’s largest renewable energy projects are suffering from heat stress, overcrowded accommodation and exploitative hiring practices, according to a report shared with Tortoise. Equidem, a human rights NGO, also identified health concerns for workers at Expo City, the conference centre where COP28 is due to be held in less than a fortnight: “I share a room with 15 other workers. This is not healthy. There is no proper ventilation in the room where I stay,” said one West African worker employed at the venue. An employee of a subcontractor for Siemens Energy spoke about being made to stand 10 hours in the sun.
Another described sexual harassment from her boss. Several employees of the UAE’s flagship solar park, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, reported having their passports confiscated and having to work over 60-hour weeks. In advance of COP, president Sultan Al-Jaber has called for an energy transition that is “just, orderly, equitable and responsible.” On at least the first of those four counts, the UAE appears to be lagging.
Around 89 per cent of the UAE’s population are migrant workers. Most are employed under “Kafala” – a system of sponsorship by employers that prevents workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without their permission. They also hail disproportionately from regions of the world affected by climate change: out of 108 workers interviewed by Equidem, 57 per cent came from climate-impacted areas of Africa and Asia. “The last place I worked was a pharmaceutical company,” said one Pakistani employee employed at Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park. “I had to leave my job because of rains and floods, due to which interior Sindh is basically drowned.”
Workers that come to the UAE to work in the renewables sector are at further risk from the impacts of extreme heat. Between April and September, temperatures can reach 55C even in the shade, with humidity exceeding 80 per cent. Under UAE law, workers are required to take a midday break between 12.30 and 3.00pm to protect them from heat stress. But a recent investigation by another NGO found work had been taking place at Expo City during banned hours in preparation for Cop28. Equidem spoke to at least a dozen renewable energy workers who described the health impacts of heat stress, including heatstroke, rashes and dehydration.