Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan security guard expelled from Qatar after complaining about working conditions, is feeling conflicted about watching the World Cup which begins this week.
“To say I won’t watch the World Cup would be a lie,” the 30-year-old said.
“But looking at the stadiums, I can’t help but wonder how many people have not been paid, how many have suffered terrible working conditions… how many have lost their lives.”
Bidali became an outspoken migrant worker activist after being detained for four weeks and then deported from the Gulf state in 2021.
Qatar has faced widespread criticism over its treatment of foreign workers, women’s rights and the LGBTQ community ahead of the tournament which ends on December 18.
Rights groups have complained of unpaid wages and unreported deaths on construction sites.
Qatar has carried out major reforms which have been hailed by international trade unions but Bidali is among the sceptics.
“When all the cameras are gone, all the journalists are gone, all the fans are gone, it will be the migrant workers and the employers and the state, and I think it will be very difficult to maintain even the reforms that have already been introduced, leave alone introducing new ones,” Bidali said.
“But I hope I’m wrong.”
– ‘Similar to slavery’ –
Bidali arrived in Qatar in January 2016 and worked as a security guard watching CCTV footage on a screen for 12 hours a day.
He did not complain about his conditions. He earned around $420 a month – much more than he would in Kenya – and lived in a villa with other migrant workers.
Bidali said his nightmare started when he moved to another company where he was only paid $350 a month and moved into a 20 square meter room he shared with five other men.
The beds, he said, were infested with lice and the kitchen with cockroaches.
Bidali said he owed $1,200 to a Kenyan recruitment agency – which helped him get his job and arrange a flight and visa – so at first he said nothing.
But he eventually wrote email complaints to Qatar’s labor and interior ministries. According to Bidali, they did not respond.
Then Migrant-Rights.org, a specialized non-governmental group, contacted him and he began writing anonymous blogs about the lives of workers in the wealthy Gulf state.
“Working conditions in Qatar are similar to slavery,” he said.
“You find yourself in a situation that’s very hard to get out of, where someone basically owns you. Someone decides very big aspects of your life, from what time you wake up to what time you go to bed, what kind of food you eat, where you live, who you associate with.”
– ‘Psychological pressure’ –
The so-called “kafala” sponsorship system for foreign workers once dominated in Qatar, as it still does in most Gulf states.
But it has largely been dismantled in recent years. Workers can now change jobs and leave the country without their employer’s permission.
Qatar has also introduced a minimum wage and new regulations on working in the heat.
Bidali said he started having trouble when he wrote a story that mentioned a Qatari royal.
He was arrested by the national security agency on May 4, 2021 and said he was not allowed to see a lawyer. He also complained of “psychological pressure”, including having a permanent light in his cell and losing track of the day and time.
Qatar accused him of receiving money from a ‘foreign agent’ to help spread ‘disinformation’, but he was eventually released following protests from the NGO and the professional footballers’ union .
He was banned from leaving the country, but following international publicity and diplomatic support, he was deported in August 2021 after being ordered to pay a $6,000 fine.
Qatari authorities have not responded to Bidali’s latest comments. In May, they said he had received “legal advice and representation”.