Qatar: The strange case of Malcolm Bidali

Last summer, the international trade union movement was celebrating the news from Qatar. The country which is slated to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup had come under enormous pressure to respect the rights of workers, especially migrant workers, who were getting the country ready for such a high profile event.

The headline on the website of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) could not have been more gushing: “A new dawn for migrant workers in Qatar”. The article went on to say that “new laws adopted today by the State of Qatar are a game changer in the protection of workers’ rights.” And just to be clear: the focus was on the rights of migrant workers.

The ITUC’s general secretary was quoted as saying that “these changes are a break with the past and offer a future for migrant workers in Qatar underpinned by laws which respect workers, along with grievance and remedy systems.”

But events in recent weeks in the gulf state have raised questions about how much has really changed.

On 4 May, Qatari security services arrested a 28-year-old Kenyan man employed as a security guard by GSS. His name is Malcolm Bidali and at first no one would confirm that he was being held and under what charge. Bidali has become known in recent months as an outspoken proponent of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, writing regularly — under a pseudonym — for various blogs, but also speaking publicly at events.

A few days after his disappearance, a number of global civil society organisations stepped forward demanding to know his whereabouts. These included, FairSquare, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. No unions were in the group sending that message. The Qatari government was forced to confirm that Bidali was being held on the charge of violating Qatar’s security laws and regulations.

Several days later, on 21 May, one of the global union federations — UNI Global Union — which represents security guards, announced that it had sent a letter to the Qatari government. UNI demanded Bidali’s immediate and unconditional release. “We believe that Mr. Bidali is imprisoned for his documentation of inhumane housing and working conditions, such as crowding ten people into a room, gruelling schedules, and cuts to income,” wrote Christy Hoffman, UNI’s General Secretary.

Finally, a few days ago, word got out that Bidali had been released. But the threat of imprisonment still hangs over him. According to the Qatari government, Bidali was “formally charged with offences related to payments received by a foreign agent for the creation and distribution of disinformation within the State of Qatar.”

As in similar cases in other countries, the message being sent by the Qatari government could not be clearer: the arrest of Malcolm Bidali, who spent nearly a month in solitary confinement, was designed to strike fear into the hearts of any other migrant workers in Qatar.

It’s great that organisations like Amnesty International put pressure on the Qatari regime to release Bidali. But — with the notable exception of UNI — where were the unions?

The last reference to Qatar on the website of the ITUC is from August last year, hailing the “new dawn for migrant workers” in the country.

Migrant workers are workers, and they have the same rights as all workers — including the right to speak out about their working conditions and their lack of rights. Even if they are not formally members of a registered trade union, they deserve the support of trade unionists everywhere.

The ITUC, as well as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have been involved in a years-long dialogue with the Qatari regime. Having invested so much in that dialogue, perhaps they hesitated to speak out publicly on behalf of Malcolm Bidali.

Whatever their reason, at a time when groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty came to the defence of this brave young workers’ rights defender, the main institutions of the global labour movement were nowhere to be seen.

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.