Migrant workers face risks building the UAE’s gas expansion plans
Climate Home spoke with migrant workers in the UAE, who face harsh conditions and a lack of transparency when risk turns deadly.
After four years working in construction in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Mohammed Amer, a 23-year-old migrant labourer from Pakistan decided to move to the oil and gas sector in search of better living and working conditions. Then his friend died.
Just days after Amer was offered the new job, a close friend working as a contractor for an oil and gas company died after getting lost in the desert. Other workers told Amer it was work-related, but officially, the man’s death was listed as natural causes.
Despite knowing the circumstances of his friend’s death, Amer still celebrated his new contract with the National Petroleum Construction Company (NPCC), a UAE-based engineering and procurement company, by ordering sweets for his family back home in Lahore, Pakistan. It was a better paid job, Amer said, and “all work is risky here.”
UAE and its neighbor, Qatar, are in the midst of a major build out of infrastructure to increase gas production and exports, encouraged in part by Europe’s recent demand for alternatives to Russian gas. They will rely on migrant labour to get it done.
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But stories like Amer’s friend’s are not uncommon. In 2022, a coalition of non-government organizations, Vital Signs, estimated that 10,000 South Asian migrant workers die each year in the Gulf region, and as many as half are reported as only “cardiac arrests” or “natural causes,” a suspiciously high percentage that potentially obscures how many of these deaths were work-related.
Industry observers and workers note that the UAE’s oil and gas sector has better safety protocols than other industries in the country, but they also point to a lack of transparency and potential conflict of interests in how work-related injuries or accidents get reported.
A Climate Home News investigation found that, while migrant workers will build a major gas expansion in the UAE to supply Europe with energy alternatives, these workers face harsh conditions and a lack of transparency when risk turns deadly.
Activists warn that the UAE’s gas plans could clash with the country’s role as president in the next round of UN climate negotiations, Cop28. The president of the upcoming Cop28, Sultan Al Jaber, is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).
The International Energy Agency has said that limiting global warming to the Paris Accord target of 1.5C requires no new development of oil and gas fields.
As Europe searched for quick replacements for Russian gas last year, several countries turned to UAE to cover their needs, including France, Germany and Austria. Germany’s agreement with Adnoc covers at least two years. The European country has also signed a 15-year contract with Qatar and recently opened two floating import terminals.
Niklas Höhne, a climate policy expert and co-founder of NewClimate Institute, says the German government is consiering building up to 13 import terminals.
“It is a huge overcapacity if it is built,” says Höhne, adding gas deliveries from existing pipelines from Norway would be more efficient.
UAE’s state-owned energy company, Adnoc, is boosting its gas production to stop importing gas from Qatar and expand its own exports.
Qatar already exports more liquified natural gas (LNG) than any other country in the world. It is now expanding gas production in the offshore North Field, with plans to increase exports by nearly 60% by 2027. Both countries’ energy ministers have suggested that they will keep producing gas for several decades.
The expansion is already underway in the UAE. Amer’s new company has been hired by Adnoc to develop a new $548 million pipeline to expand gas production in the Lower Zakum field in the shallow waters offshore of Abu Dhabi.
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The country has also revived plans for a LNG export terminal in Fujairah, outside the Strait of Hormuz choke point, to ship gas to both Asia and Europe, and is seeking to speed up construction. The terminal would more than double UAE’s current export capacity.
At least two leading contracting groups have shown interest in developing the project, with bids likely to come in the next months, energy news outlet Upstream reported.
These projects will be built by the country’s migrant workforce. Almost 8 million people, mainly from South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, work across all industries in the UAE, and represent 90% of the country’s total workforce, according to the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO). Amer, for instance, is the main income earner of his family of five back home in Pakistan.
There are no publicly shared figures on how many workers are currently employed in the UAE’s oil and gas sector, but 30% of the country’s GDP is directly based on the industry. Adnoc alone has approximately 55,000 direct employees, according to one 2016 report, not counting contractors and other third-party workers.
High risk in Lower Zakum
Amer’s friend went missing in the desert while working as a jeep driver on a pipeline construction project. He and his colleague were missing for two days.
By the time the vehicle was traced, he had died and his colleague was in critical condition, according to an Adnoc health & safety officer, who agreed to share limited information about the death because of fears of retribution. Adnoc did not make public a complete disclosure of the event.
The death was formally ruled a heart attack by Adnoc and other government officials, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.
“In case of serious accidents or deaths, it becomes a police case and a medical expert will conduct a postmortem [examination],” the health and safety officer said. “If it is deduced a heart attack or a natural death, then companies don’t have to pay families.”
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The source said that government officials do influence the death reports that medical experts produce.
“Companies have to report accidents to government authorities such as the Abu Dhabi Occupational Safety and Health Center (Oshad). But if you are the government authority, like Adnoc, you will usually conduct investigations yourself,” says the health officer.
“Even when police and doctors are involved to assess a situation, it is hard to really assure there is no conflict of interest.”
A spokeperson for Adnoc told Climate Home News the “health and safety” of its workforce is a top priority, but offered no comment on the specific event or the potential conflict of interests.
“Any work-related incident is thoroughly investigated, and learnings are shared internally. We include contractor activities in all our safety approaches and data, and we value all of the people that work for ADNOC,” the spokesperson added.
Activists have previously called out the lack of transparency around the high rate of unexplained heart attack-related or natural deaths of young migrant workers across the Gulf.
“There is clearly a problem with the manner in which deaths are investigated and certified in the UAE and the Gulf more broadly,” says Nicholas McGeehan, founding co-director of Fair/Square.
“This is particularly true when the deaths involve non-nationals and the lower down the social strata you go, the more likely it is that a person’s death won’t be investigated even in cases where employer negligence is suspected,” McGeehan added.
The main risks on oil and gas infrastructure projects like Lower Zakum are fires, equipment-related injuries, falling overboard, and inhaling poisonous gas, according to an Adnoc engineer who has worked on offshore expansion projects and who also wished to remain anonymous over similar concerns.
While Adnoc’s risk assessment controls are generally effective, the engineer said, when there are accidents, they rarely get reported.
“The main issue is that the bureaucracy sweeps these things under the rug, especially if the victim is a low-skilled person,” he said. “If there was more transparency and accountability, even the rare accidents will be taken seriously because of negative public perceptions,”
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The wages are also not proportionate to the high risks of the work that low-skilled migrant workers do.
“Engineers will get paid okay but low skilled workers really don’t,” the engineer said. “It might be better than other industries but it is still extremely exploitative given the intense work that is done.” A low skilled contractor will typically get paid around US$300 per month, according to several workers spoken to about their wages.
Rising temperatures could make the job even more challenging for workers. A 2015 MIT study estimated that, under a very high emissions scenario, temperatures in Gulf nations may cross the limit of survivability for humans in the second half of the century.
Already, the Gulf is one of the regions with the hottest weather anywhere on Earth according to a 2020 study published in the journal Science Advances.
A risky — but attractive — job
Mohammed Amer says that he’s well aware that the work in oil and gas is a “dangerous environment.” He was willing to take the job in the hope for better pay.
“I had been suffering for four years working in the heat and not getting anything in return. I moved to this work because even if I am still suffering, at least I will get something in return,” says Amer. “All work is risky here.”
The Adnoc health and safety officer says that the UAE’s oil and gas sector offers relatively better living standards to migrant workers, but more risk.
“Accidents can be catastrophic if they occur. This might be why they also offer relatively better living conditions for workers,” the officer said. “Whatever company is working on an Adnoc project, for example, must provide accommodation, food, and other basic facilities of a certain standard that are far superior to what is being offered elsewhere in the UAE.”
But workers who are directly employed with large companies are the primary beneficiaries of these living conditions. Large, well-established firms like NPCC and Adnoc have to answer to a range of stakeholders that include shareholders and the government. Third-party companies are rarely held to the same standards. Most companies also hire third party contractors for construction and engineering.
“The high rate of deaths among the migrant workers who migrate to major destination countries such as the Gulf after passing rigorous medical examinations in Nepal has been a sign of considerable concern,” Anurag Devkota, a human rights lawyer, specialising in labour migration in Nepal.
“It is quite concerning that the majority of causes of death are either unknown or are being reported without a full postmortem. These deaths can be prevented with greater effort from both employers and the government of the country of destination.”
Varun Jangir, a migrant oil rig worker at gas fields and off-shore rigs in the UAE has been working for a third-party contractor for about a decade. His monthly salary is AED1700 ($460) but he does experience wage delays regularly.
“I have never been hired by the company I am working for directly, they always just rent us out from our agency,” he says. “I don’t know if working for big companies is better, I have never experienced it but I know that nobody cares if we are paid or not, or if we live or die, and our employer will never even get in trouble for our deaths.”