Construction – Qatar

Ending the exploitation of its migrant worker population

Malcolm Bidali

This piece, written by Kenyan migrant worker turned activist Malcolm Bidali, documents his experiences working for a security company in Qatar. After a relatively successful first stint he returned to the country in September 2018, only to find himself in a far worse situation. He went on to document the living and working conditions that he and other migrants faced, leading eventually to his arrest by the Qatari authorities in May 2021. Here he shares his concerns for the hundreds of thousands of migrants still in Qatar, many of them working in construction ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and his hopes for reform. 

We arrived at the airport around midnight, and there was no one to receive us. We had to wait for the outgoing shift that worked at the airport, and hitched a ride with them, in the monstrosity of a bus most commonly used for ferrying construction workers. As tired as we were, I was hopeful that we would get some rest at the same accommodation I was at last time I was there. Oh, how mistaken I was. I watched, in utter disbelief and confusion, as the bus whizzed past Barwa Al Baraha. Confusion gave way to dread as the bus pulled up to a ghastly excuse of an accommodation in the Industrial Area – a slum-like district characterized by congested ‘residences’, filth, dust, deplorable roads, litter and generally unsanitary surroundings. This is where Qatar hides its migrant workers, away from the general population, as if we were a blight, an eyesore. 

We, the new arrivals, got off the bus and were led to a room where our passports were confiscated. Then we were transferred to another block as ghastly as the first, where we were shown where to sleep. No meal or even drinking water was provided. Unlike with the previous company, we weren’t given an advance or food allowance for a week or two, and we had to survive on the generosity of roommates and countrymen. Coexisting in cramped quarters, infested with bedbugs, and unsanitary toilets didn’t help matters at all. We also couldn’t request better living conditions for fear of retribution, so we kept our heads down and when we were finally given work locations, we accepted our fate and looked forward to completing our contracts. We also couldn’t change jobs to escape these conditions, because our company actively barred us from leaving them, so we were stuck with them for the long haul, pretty much against our will. This was and still is a common occurrence, despite Qatar having passed labour reforms in 2020 that allow workers to freely change jobs. 

A few of the challenges migrant workers face are living in cramped unsanitary quarters, appalling food quality, long working hours, no days off, long commutes to and from work, racism, prohibitions on forming unions to address various challenges they face, the oppressive kafala (or sponsorship) system that bars them from changing jobs, wage theft or non-payment of wages, contract substitution, health and safety hazards, lack of access to justice, constant fear of retribution for speaking up, forced celibacy, restrictions on visiting malls and public parks or beaches, and a lack of support from their respective embassies. 

In late December 2019, I began speaking up on the deplorable conditions of our welfare. With help from Migrant-Rights.org, I published an article, and this got a lot of traction, which led to some changes being implemented almost immediately. When I saw the power of advocacy and social media, I made up my mind to dive in and carry on writing about our experiences. This went on for about a year or so, until I published a piece on Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (Qatar Foundation Chairperson and mother to the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani). That particular article, I believe, is the reason I was apprehended by the authorities.

But then again, the big question is: what happens after the 2022 World Cup, when all eyes are no longer on Qatar and the plight of its migrant workers?

Malcolm Bidali

When I was released, while still in Qatar, my safety and security was definitely at risk because I was made to sign a non-disclosure agreement to bar me from disclosing anything regarding my solitary confinement, interrogation, prosecution proceedings and other details surrounding my case. For the two and a half months I was in Qatar, pending court proceedings and under a travel ban, I couldn’t speak about anything. I most certainly couldn’t access my social media accounts or speak to my friends as I was 100 per cent sure I was being monitored. If I said or did anything even remotely advocacy related, I knew I would be picked up or summoned by the authorities – and these weren’t your ordinary police or even the CID, this was the State Security Bureau, an intelligence agency branch of the Qatari Ministry of Interior, responsible for internal security investigations and intelligence gathering, with primary responsibility for sedition and espionage cases. Basically, a scary government entity with the autonomy to operate with carte blanche on cases they perceive to be harmful to national security, which makes them a very unpleasant outfit to be on the wrong side of. 

Despite my ordeal in Qatar, I strongly believe there is space for an emerging and effective civil society. One organization even wrote to a member of the ruling Al Thani family, demanding due process in my case and to ensure my safety and wellbeing. Doha News, arguably the most fearless media operating in Qatar, also reported extensively on my situation, along with a good number of the public, who voiced their concerns regarding my arrest for raising awareness regarding the dire situation of migrant workers’ welfare. I believe, despite the government’s attitude towards ‘dissent’, if enough people, media and civil society, with support from diplomatic interventions, can hold dialogue and work towards significant changes, this will greatly benefit both migrant workers and the business community. 

However, I don’t think boycotting, especially at this point in time, is a sensible response, mainly because of the assured retribution towards migrant workers, and the dismantling of the major reforms that have been made over the years. Boycotting may and will send a strong message, but the majority of the various parties calling for the boycott don’t live in Qatar. It’s the migrant workers who live and work in Qatar who will feel the full force of Qatari retribution, especially after their enormous investment in the event. It will be tantamount to open season on migrant workers and will most certainly undo all the progress on their welfare made so far. 

The World Cup should still proceed, but more should be done in the way of dialogue between the Qatari authorities, the international community, embassies, international media, football clubs, prominent players, influential personalities and civil society. It’s definitely too late to pull this destructive stunt when the most vulnerable – migrant workers – are the ones who will bear the brunt. More should be done to implement favourable and airtight policies and legislation to promote migrant workers’ welfare. 

Qatar has proven to be able to commit to introducing landmark reforms, at least on paper, and we need to be as involved as possible to ensure said reforms are effectively implemented. Giving credit where it is due, it is highly commendable that, of all the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Qatar has taken major strides with regard to labour reforms. However, we as the concerned parties should be relentless in monitoring and cooperating with the Qatari authorities to ensure proper implementation, and we should also be extra vigilant and hold them accountable in the event of regression. Diplomatic interventions should also be encouraged in support of new legislation and the implementation of labour reforms. 

But then again, the big question is: what happens after the 2022 World Cup, when all eyes are no longer on Qatar and the plight of its migrant workers?

 

Photo: Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail stadium which will be built for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar. December 20, 2019. Credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach