Amnesty International recently called for the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan national who worked as a security guard in Qatar. According to Amnesty, he was “forcibly disappeared since 4 May, when he was taken from his labour accommodation for questioning by the state security service.”
Saudi Arabia’s System of Injustice
Bidali, who blogs under the name Noah, has been a critic of the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, a small Gulf state that is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. “A week before his arrest, Bidali gave a presentation to a large group of civil society organizations and trade unions about his experience of working in Qatar,” Amnesty noted.
Migrant Workers in Qatar
For Qatar, his story draws unwelcome attention to the treatment of migrant workers in the run-up to the World Cup. The Qataris had won praise for scrapping the notorious kafala sponsor system, which ties workers to their employers with terms similar to those of indentured laborers or, as some critics say, to slavery.
In August 2020, the government announced reforms that included a minimum wage. The changes to labor law were hailed as a landmark in a region with an appalling record of mistreatment of migrant workers. Had the amendments been fully implemented, the conditions for migrant workers would have improved significantly. But more than a year and a half after the reforms were introduced, it is clear that little has changed for many migrants in Qatar.
An Al Jazeera investigation in March 2021 revealed that “the majority of those interviewed experienced delays in the process as well as threats, harassment and exploitation by the sponsor, with some of the workers ending up in prison and eventually deported.” The report cited the case of a migrant from the Philippines who worked at a food stall. When she told her boss she wanted to leave and get a new job, she faced threats and harassment. Her ID was canceled and she had a court case brought against her, none of which should have happened with the new laws in place. “I thought the new laws were there to help us. All I did was try and seek a better job. I don’t think I’ve committed a crime to be facing these problems,” she said.
Writing About Rights
Bidali’s problems arose as a result of his blogs, which challenge the rosy narrative projected by the government. In a post titled, “Minimum Wage, Maximum Adjustment,” he writes:
“‘Peanuts.’ That’s the first thing that comes to Simon’s mind when I ask him about the changes to the minimum wage. A security guard from Kenya, toiling in Msheireb Downtown Doha, a slave to the elements for the better part of 12 hours a day. He earns [in a month] QR1250 (USD340). Paid a recruitment agent QR4400 (USD1200) to get the job, and spent a further QR1100 on related expenses. ‘There’s no difference for us (security guards). What they should have done is stipulate the specifics, like working hours, working conditions… things like that. When you take away the food and housing allowance, compensation for the work we do isn’t considered at all. We work so hard. Long commutes, long hours on-site, sweating like crazy with this heat, stress, fatigue… we don’t even eat properly.’”
Bidali writes the following in a blog titled, “The Privilege of a Normal Life”:
“Qatar, like all [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, makes it virtually impossible for the spouses and partners of low-income migrant workers to accompany them for the duration of their contract. Over an extended period of time devoid of affection and intimacy, desire manifests, ever so intense. The situation isn’t made any easier when you look around and all you see are other couples of privileged nationalities, strolling side by side, holding hands, or having a meal together, enjoying each other’s company. After a magical day or night out, they retreat to their homes, where they enjoy the luxury of privacy.”
In other blogs, he writes of the crowded and unsanitary dormitories that workers, despite some improvements, are still forced to endure.
Amnesty told Arab Digest that since his arrest, the migrant rights activist has been allowed one short phone call to his mother. He said to her he is being held in solitary confinement, which Amnesty described as “incredibly worrying.” He is being held in an unknown place, and there are fears that he may be subjected to torture.
Claims by Qatari Authorities
The treatment of Bidali by Qatari authorities stands in stark contrast to their claims of change in the Gulf state. In 2020, Yousuf Mohamed Al Othman Fakhroo, the labor minister, said Qatar is “committed to creating a modern and dynamic labour market.” He added that the reforms “mark a major milestone in this journey and will benefit workers, employers and the nation alike.” That thought was echoed at the time by the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Sharan Burrow, who described the changes as “a new dawn for migrant workers.” Both the ITUC and FIFA, world football’s governing body, had pushed hard for the reforms, using the World Cup as leverage.
Last week, Amnesty provided Arab Digest with the following statement:
“Three weeks after his arrest, we still have very little information on Malcolm Bidali’s fate. Despite our appeals and those of Malcolm’s mother, the government has continued to refuse to disclose his whereabouts or to explain the real reason for the ongoing detention of this courageous activist who risked his own safety to try to improve life for all migrant workers in the country. … If he is detained solely on the basis of his legitimate human rights work he must be released immediately and unconditionally, and at an absolute minimum he should be granted access to a lawyer. Such practice by the Qatar authorities sends a clear signal that it will not tolerate migrant workers speaking out and claiming their rights, and can spread fear amongst activists and other workers.”
The ITUC and FIFA have not commented publicly on the detention and disappearance of Malcolm Bidali. For weeks, the government had only confirmed his arrest and that he was being investigated for “violating Qatar’s security laws and regulations.” He has since been “charged with receiving payment to spread disinformation in the country,” Al Jazeera reports.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.