By Ty Joplin
On April 26, hundreds of security guards in Doha, Qatar staged a rare walk-out protest calling on their employers to begin paying the government-mandated minimum wage.
If employers refused, the security guards, many of whom are migrant workers from the Horn of Africa, announced that they would go on strike.
Although the Qatari government made a public show of sympathizing with the workers, it quietly disappeared Malcolm Bidali, a prominent Kenyan security guard and labor activist. Bidali ran a blog documenting the exploitation and brutal living conditions of migrant workers in Qatar, and had been meeting with civil society groups and trade unions immediately after the April 26 walk-out.
Bidali has been detained without any charges filed against him and without legal representation since May 4. The Associated Press reports his phone may have been hacked in the days leading up to his arrest. Al Bawaba spoke with Bidali’s mother, Maggie Turner, over video chat. Turner was able to talk briefly to Malcolm over the phone and confirmed that he is being held in solitary confinement and has been subject to threats.
Working conditions in Qatar have come under intense scrutiny in the lead-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is set to be hosted in the Gulf country. Human rights advocacy groups have documented thousands of migrant worker deaths in the last decade, and some including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and FairSquare wrote an open letter to Qatar urging the government to immediately disclose Malcom Bidali’s whereabouts and to ensure his safety.
Malcolm’s mother only learned of her son’s forced disappearance after seeing a raft of news articles about the arrest online. Then she got a call from an unknown number with Qatar’s area code. “To suddenly see a Qatar number was a shock for me, but then the first thing I hear is ‘Mom.’” Turner recalls.
She was able to speak with him only for ten minutes, so they focused their conversation on basic questions: what are the charges, does he have a lawyer, has he been tortured?
“That ten minutes seemed like a very short time,” she said.
Malcolm Bidali, 28, grew up in Kenya where he struggled to find a job after his schooling. Like hundreds of thousands of others in Kenya as well as Ethiopia and Eritrea, he went through an employment agency to gain work in the financially wealthy Gulf region of the Middle East in 2016.
Once he landed, his passport was confiscated by his boss, and he was forced to work 12-hour workdays, six days a week, and live in cramped living quarters.
His first stint as a security guard in Qatar lasted around a year and a half before he went back to Kenya to try and start a greenhouse farm. According to his blog, “with just a couple of months left on my contract, compelled by an intense calling, and motivational YouTube videos telling me to quit my job and chase my dreams, I did just that.” Malcolm tried to start a business and organization in Kenya that would help alleviate the country’s immense hunger and poverty crises.
But, as his mother recalls, a disease wreaked havoc on his crops, unceremoniously ending his dream. His blog also alludes vaguely to “one man’s greed” sabotaging his farming effort. With his savings quickly disappearing and debts mounting, Malcom flew back to Qatar to restart work as a security guard in September 2018.
In May 2020, Malcolm began writing a blog for Migrant-Rights under the pseudonym Noah, where he laid out the often brutal working and living conditions of migrant laborers in Qatar. He also started a Twitter and Instagram account under the same name.
For much of 2019 and 2020, he lived in Qatar’s Industrial Area, a labor camp notorious for its hazardous living conditions, which became hotbeds for COVID-19.
Malcolm summarized his living space as “six people crammed in a relatively tiny room, with three bunk beds, metal lockers and personal effects taking up a huge chunk of the space. The number of toilet and shower facilities fell short of the ratio stipulated by government regulations.”
“There were over 2,000 of us in the ‘labour camp.’”
He regularly posted anonymous stories of his co-workers’ sub-minimal wages and high living costs, as well as their struggles to maintain their physical and mental health.
“Although the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 was a surprise, it has at least shone a light on the appalling conditions that migrant workers face in the country and indeed across the region,” Danielle McMullan of Business and Human Rights Resource Centre told Al Bawaba.
“When we see Malcolm being detained seemingly for sharing his experiences of being a migrant worker in Qatar it is deeply troubling,” she added.
Malcolm wrote on one of his first blog posts that his “plight is the same as, if not better than, most of the people living in the accommodations spanning the entirety of the Industrial Area. If I had to describe life here in one word, it would be: bleak.”
In the same blog post, he wrote, “it’s a whole lot cheaper to cram a lot of people into one structure than to comply with the regulations.”
James Lynch, founding director at FairSquare, a human rights research and advocacy group, explained to Al Bawaba that “Freedom of expression is heavily restricted across the Gulf, including in Qatar.”
“Migrant workers are highly vulnerable to being terminated from their jobs or deported if they cross any red line with their employer or the government. Malcolm is a rare example of a migrant worker who has taken the courageous step of sharing his experience.”
That his disappearance comes shortly after security guards staged a walkout strike and appeared to be successfully organizing, another rarity in a country that relies on a disorganized and unprotected migrant labor force, may not be coincidental.
Al Bawaba obtained a copy of Union Network International (UNI)’s letter to Qatar’s Ministry of Administrative Development which called for Bidali’s immediate and unconditional release.
“History proves that freedom of expression, assembly, and association have been key elements to workers’ improving their jobs and their lives as well as for countries to become more prosperous and freer. We hope we can agree that workers in Qatar deserve a move in this direction,” the letter reads, noting that “Mr. Bidali´s arrest is weakening the efforts to reform Qatar’s labour codes and provoking deep dissatisfaction among many of his co-workers.”
Turner, Malcolm’s mother, described him as an empathetic and unusually intelligent person. “Usually he’s one who stands up for people. He doesn’t like to see anything bad happening to anyone,” Turner said, holding back tears in the interview.
“I feel quite proud,” she added of her son’s labor advocacy. “He’s been helping other people, you know, he’s been trying to improve their living conditions, which many people are not aware of.”
“I must admit, it’s very brave of Malcolm to do what he did.”
When asked what kind of support the international community can provide, Turner replied: “People should be empowered to be able to express themselves, especially if migrants go to places and they are contributing to a country’s economy.” She paused for a moment, then said, “they should be treated as human beings. They should be given good living conditions just like any other person.”