Malcolm Bidali on labour rights in Qatar
Qatar is a small, oil-rich nation in the Persian Gulf. In advance of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, its labour policies and the conditions faced by migrant workers have attracted global attention. Leading human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare have highlighted widespread abuses, forced labour and systematic failures to investigate and prevent the deaths of migrant workers. These abuses are not isolated to projects associated with the World Cup; they are widespread across diverse sectors.
In this interview, we talk to migrant rights activist and blogger Malcolm Bidali about the conditions faced by migrant workers in Qatar, how these impact health, how they are related to systemic racism and what changes need to occur. Originally from Kenya, Malcolm worked as a security guard in Qatar for Qatar Foundation. His experiences and the conditions he witnessed during his time there prompted him to document and expose the exploitation of migrant workers online through social media and through his writing for Migrant-Rights.org. In May 2021, Bidali was arrested and imprisoned. After being held in solitary confinement for almost a month, he was charged with offences related to payments received by a foreign agent for the creation and distribution of disinformation. Malcolm left Qatar in August 2021 and continues his activism from Kenya.
Sonora: Malcolm, you are a migrant rights activist and blogger, and have spent time working in Qatar as a security guard. Can you begin by explaining what the situation in Qatar is like for migrant workers on low wages?
Malcolm: Where do I begin? Conditions are not ideal, especially for the low wage migrant workers including security guards, cleaners, gardeners, construction workers, delivery riders, housekeeping and domestic workers. We are plagued with low wages, terrible living conditions, horrid working conditions and appalling food.
It’s a very classist system. Low-wage migrant workers are seen as expendable and replaceable. The general idea is just to have us there for the constructions and to improve the infrastructure for the World Cup and other things and then after everything is done, boom, they send us back to our countries. The perception is that migrant workers are low skilled and illiterate, only good for menial work. The irony is that the menial work is what has led to the improvement of Qatar’s infrastructure and economy. If all the migrant workers just decided to not work for one week, the whole country would crumble.
I’m certain they need migrant workers, but at the same time, they don't really put much effort into our welfare, you know and living conditions and all that.
Recruitment malpractice is also a big issue. To get jobs in Qatar, people pay exorbitant recruitment fees in excess of 1,000 USD. I personally paid $1,200 twice – not me, exactly, my mom, God bless her. For other people, they may have to sell a piece of their land or some livestock or take out loans to raise money for recruitment fees. For the most part, these loans are not from banks, but informal institutions where interest rates are very high. The moment you get to Qatar, you want to pay that money back, but wages are extremely low, so it is a months’ worth of wages, sometimes six months plus. So, you're basically in a state of no compromise, it's like forced servitude. People realise that that's the case, but you find that migrant workers are very resilient.
Qatari authorities justify the low wages and poor living conditions of migrant workers by saying, this is better than where you’re coming from, so you should be grateful that you’re being paid this much, even though it is less than you are meant to be paid and it’s not a living wage.
Scare tactics are also frequent. If, for example, you want to report any injustice or labour violation you're liable to monetary penalty or even deportation, sometimes even arrest in extreme cases. That’s just the general climate there.
S: How do these conditions impact the health and well-being of migrant workers on low wages?
M: There have been multiple cases of deaths of young, healthy men just because the body can only take so much. Because of the horrible food, some people develop complications, so visits to the hospital clinics are frequent. This is well documented.
Due to the constant state of fear and stress, cortisol levels are very high among migrant workers in Qatar. There is constant stress from the build-up of living in confined spaces with unhygienic standards, for example, filthy toilets and filthy washrooms. And because people are really packed into tight living spaces it's very easy to catch something. Even simple things like the common cold, if one person has something, everyone has it.
And just the fatigue, when you're going months on end doing work without any off days without any rest, just day after day after day, obviously, like I said, the body can only take so much.
So, we have a physical health aspect, and there’s also the mental health aspect. These conditions definitely affect people's mental health. Just the fact that you know that you're being treated differently, just because of your race or your class or your job description, that takes a toll on people's mental well-being. People speak to you differently, people talk down to you, look down upon you, so that definitely does things to you, we’re only human you know, at the end of the day. People are resilient but not everyone. Everyone handles things in their own different kind of way. Some people turn to substances like alcohol, and I've seen people take up smoking just to relieve all those things that are happening. Other people just say that I’ve had enough and resign because they’re being forced into living in such conditions.
S: In terms of physical health, you mentioned that the body can only take so much, are you referring to the extreme heat in Qatar?
M: Definitely. Heat stress is a very big issue in Qatar. Summers in Qatar tend to get really, really hot. I have personally experienced 49 to 50-degree weather, but it gets higher, especially when you factor in humidity. I have had nosebleeds and headaches due to the heat. I know people who have passed out during the course of their work while working outside and who've been taken to the hospital in ambulances because of the toll that the body has taken due to heat. Not very much is being done to combat this. The government has put a prohibition on working from like 10am to 3pm during the summer months because that's when the sun is at its peak, but some companies still flout that law blatantly. Some companies get fined for this, but if the company belongs to a prominent family no fines are brought against them.
There are more detailed reports from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, migrants-rights.org, and Fairsquare. All these organinations have done extensive research into this, but this is what I can tell you from my own experience.
S: Certain labour policies in Qatar, such as the Kafala system, which ties employees’ ability to remain in the country to a particular employer, have been blamed for the poor conditions that many migrant workers face because they are unable to change jobs. Qatar recently abolished the Kafala system and has announced reforms to its labour laws. Have these changes improved the situation for migrant workers in Qatar?
M: Okay, so labour reforms were introduced in mid 2020 that purported to do away with the Kafala system, allowing migrant workers to have more freedom to change jobs. However, ‘abolishment’ of the Kafala system has not been the case in practice. When the policy change was first announced, it worked for about two months and it was fairly easy to change employers, you just had to put in a request to the Ministry of Labour, notify your employer, and serve your notice period. In the beginning, people submitted the documents and were able to change jobs. As soon as it was announced and everything was up and running, hundreds, maybe thousands of people applied to change their jobs, which just shows you how messed up the situation was.
But after a few weeks, the legislative body wanted to repeal the reforms because, and I don't say this lightly, the employers – the higher class and the elite who own all the companies – felt the pinch of the exodus of the migrant workers and they were like ‘yo, our slaves are getting away from us, we need to do something about this’. So the legislative body proposed changes to the reforms that make it even more difficult for migrant workers to change jobs. Now, the new system mirrors the old Kafala system, and employers have the power to make things very difficult for migrant workers who do apply to change jobs. The reality on the ground is that the Kafala system is still up and running.
These labour reforms also claimed that a non-discriminatory minimum wage would be introduced. But the minimum wage is much below the minimum amount you need to live in Qatar.
So, while there are liberal reforms on paper, the poor implementation and the pushback from legislators and the elite have negated the reforms. The situation is just as it was before, and no one is really saying anything much about this.
S: I think it is important to mention that the vast majority of Qatar’s population are migrants from around the world. However, not all migrants in Qatar have similar experiences. What role do structural racism and xenophobia play in the experiences of migrant workers in Qatar?
M: From my experience, the stronger your passport is or the better diplomatic relations your country has with Qatar, the better chances you have of having decent working conditions. For example, dark-skinned Africans, with exception of people from Sudan, face really terrible conditions, but people from Sudan, and Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, basically, the north African countries, have better salaries, better living standards, even better working conditions. Just because we are Africans, they think that we are strong, they think we are made of metal and vibranium, you know hashtag Wakanda. They put Africans in very harsh working conditions like front gate duties, patrol, out in the sun and exposed to all the temperatures and weather conditions. But for the other nationalities, you find that they have better jobs, like reception jobs where you're inside the facility, you have air conditioning and drinking water. There is also discrimination when it comes to promotions; people who have lighter skin than us, they get better job placements and their promotions come quicker.
It's not only Africans that are the victims; migrant workers in general are treated differently. Sometimes, migrant workers are not even allowed to enter places like malls and parks. They claim that it's because of ‘family day’, when only families are allowed to enter certain public places, but that's not the case. I've seen places where they say, ‘this is a family day’, but you find that male Qataris, for example, or even male Europeans without any family are allowed to just walk into the premises.
Racism is definitely a thing, discrimination is definitely a thing, but the good thing is that there are young Qataris who see through all this bullshit and people are actually speaking out against it. The powers that be unfortunately control everything so it's going to be a battle for change, and it is also risky to speak out in Qatar. You're free to say whatever you want, but at your own peril.
S: What are some of the structural changes that are necessary in order to make the situation better for migrant workers?
M: On paper, everything is already supposed to be really good. If you read Qatar’s labour laws, workers are supposed to be treated with decency and dignity, the law even outlines, for example, the number of people who are supposed to be in a room, the quality food is supposed to have, the mandatory days off and maximum working hours. So on paper, everything is great, but what happens when it comes to implementation? People are only supposed to be working for eight hours a day, but you have people working 12, 13, 14, and even 15-hour days. So, implementation is needed.
Funnily enough, there are provisions in Qatar’s labour law for joint committees to promote migrant empowerment. A joint committee is where you have an equal number of workers and management coming together to raise issues and try to correct those issues. While this is allowed in the Qatar Labour law, in actuality they don't really do that because that might be seen as a union and unions are basically outlawed in Qatar because the moment you have a union that means workers have a foothold in their welfare and can demand a minimum wage, adequate living standards, adequate and nutritious food, good working conditions and all that.
I would have to say diplomatic intervention is also necessary. Qatar responds to some foreign countries better than others, so if they put pressure on the Qatari government and hold other embassies accountable for whatever happens to migrant workers that could cause change. Right now, embassies are doing nothing for migrant workers.
None of the recent reforms would have happened if not for the FIFA World Cup. But we’re just a few months away from the World Cup and we still have cases of people not being paid and of people in horrible living conditions. So my question is, what happens after the World Cup, what happens when everyone else has moved on to the next big thing? After the attention has gone, things go back to the chaotic state that they were in. I’m fairly certain that, as soon as the World Cup is over, things will go back to the way they were, or things will get worse.
S: With all that in mind, what can civil society both inside and outside of Qatar do to support migrant workers and improve conditions for them?
M: None of the major institutions will jump in to remedy these issues without pressure from international media, civil society groups, or countries and embassies. These groups have the power to raise these issues. You know how social media works; when something goes viral and it's directly affecting the PR of a certain establishment, that establishment is forced to implement some changes. It takes people to complain about things, and it takes people to expose things for change to happen.
Migrant workers also need to be empowered and included in discussions. Migrant workers need to know their rights, and where they can, access support. They also need to be included in the discussions about change; you can't really have discussions on migrant workers welfare if migrant workers are not present to discuss too – you need their input. Civil society needs input from migrant workers to raise awareness and create change, even after the World Cup.