Malcom Bidali disappeared working in Qatar two weeks ago. His worrying situation invites us to revisit whether 300,000 Kenyan professionals working in the middle east and elsewhere, are adequately protected. Bidali migrated to Qatar to fill an employment gap for security services several years ago. Observing the experiences of other expatriates, the security guard quickly acquainted himself with Qatari and international labour laws and standards. He also began to advocate for the rights of workers. Negotiating migrant labour contracts is notoriously exploitative. Kenyan based broker employment bureaus have been known to charge Kshs 140,000 for agency fees, medical tests, yellow fever certificates, Kenyan passport applications and other costs. Once in the Kingdom, many domestic workers, construction workers, security guards among others often face nineteenth century exploitative working conditions. Despite international labour rights standards that demand all employers fairly remunerate workers and not subject them to inhumane and dangerous work environments, many workers face delayed or unpaid wages, work excessively long hours, and struggle to change jobs or access justice. Cramped into hostels, nine workers have been known to sleep on double-decker bunks in one 4 by 4 metre rooms sharing one shower cubicle. 6,500 workers from different countries have died, many from working out-door and heat related stress conditions over the last decade. The conditions of female domestic workers are far worse. The threat of food denial and sexual abuse in the homes of their employers is never far away. Under intense international pressure and supported by the International Labour Organisation, Qatar agreed to new reforms that allow for workers to change jobs or leave the country without their employers’ permission, earn a minimum wage, and access justice through the courts. Through Bidali’s courage, it is clear the authorities have yet to eradicate the structural and systemic racism described in the 2019 report of UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. The Qatar authorities have confirmed that Bidali was arrested on May 5 for allegedly violating security laws and regulations. There are more credible concerns that he may have been detained for exercising his right to free expression and protesting inhumane labour conditions. In recent years, journalists from Germany, United Kingdom and Nepal have been detained and interrogated without access to lawyers for researching and reporting on the conditions of workers. Qatari anti-terrorism and anti-cyber-crime laws give wide-ranging surveillance and detention powers for communicating “incorrect news” or spreading rumours. Coincidently this week, the Kenyan High Court declared similar provisions in the penal code (section 66) unconstitutional in the case of the State versus blogger Cyprian Nyakundi. Qatar hopes to host the FIFA World Cup in November 2022. Played in over 200 countries, football is the world’s most popular sport. Hosting the 2022 World Cup is worth at least US$220 billion to the Kingdom. The Kingdom must allay long standing fears that its Kafala employer sponsorship system is not an open jail for two million migrant workers to work in discriminatory, undignified, and unsafe conditions or risk the privilege of hosting football’s most prestigious international event. Further, the Kingdom has to respect the right to free expression, association, and assembly alongside the rest of the world. The Kenyan public, Government and National Assembly and the international community must now raise their voices for the immediate and unconditional release of Malcom Bidali.
This opinion was also published in the Sunday Standard, 16 May 2021