May 26, 2021 | Policy Brief

Qatar’s Detention of Writer Puts Labor Abuses in the Spotlight Again

May 26, 2021 | Policy Brief

Qatar’s Detention of Writer Puts Labor Abuses in the Spotlight Again

Qatar has detained Malcolm Bidali, a 28-year-old Kenyan foreign worker, but will not disclose where he is being held or what charges he faces. While working as a security guard, Bidali chronicled the difficult conditions faced by Qatar’s 2 million foreign laborers, bringing renewed attention to Doha’s poor record on labor rights as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

Bidali arrived in Qatar in 2016 and wrote articles under the pseudonym “Noah,” highlighting the harsh – and often inhumane – conditions in which many of Qatar’s foreign laborers live and work. Qatari security forces detained Bidali on May 4. The government stated he had been “placed under investigation for violating Qatar’s security laws and regulations.” Rights groups fear Bidali has been “forcibly disappeared.” The Qatari government has not disclosed any information on where Bidali is being held, what charges he faces, or whether he has been offered consular assistance. In a phone call to his mother, Bidali reported he is being held in solitary confinement and did not have access to a lawyer.

Bidali’s mistreatment once again highlights Qatar’s – and, generally, the Gulf region’s – woeful labor rights record. Qatar has a 2-million-strong workforce of foreign laborers, making up 95 percent of the Qatari population. One million of them work in construction. Qatar’s foreign workers face long hours, inadequate legal protections, poor pay – which employers sometimes withhold – and even forced labor and human trafficking. Qatar’s labor rights record has received heightened scrutiny in recent years as the emirate prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, spurring a massive infrastructure build largely carried out by foreign workers.

More than 6,500 South Asian workers, the majority of them likely employees of infrastructure projects, have died in Qatar in the last decade, with the majority of deaths attributed to cardiac or respiratory failure. Severe heat stress brought on by working in the emirate’s blistering summer sun is likely a factor. However, Qatar only rarely performs autopsies – despite a 2014 recommendation from Qatari government lawyers that autopsies should be performed in cases of sudden or unexpected death.

Qatar has made some reforms to its labor laws following a 2017 partnership with the International Labour Organization. Last year, the emirate effectively abolished the kafala system, which forbade workers from changing their jobs without their employer’s permission. Qatar also introduced a new minimum wage, created a support and insurance fund for workers, and introduced a new law to protect domestic workers, among other measures.

Enforcement, however, has been patchy. The support and insurance fund, for example, only became operational two years after it was established. Domestic workers report ongoing abuses, including passport confiscation and physical mistreatment. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to further mistreatment: Last March, Qatar locked down an expatriate-heavy industrial area in Doha to curtail the spread of the virus, effectively trapping hundreds of thousands of workers in severely cramped conditions. Doha also illegally expelled dozens of workers after falsely notifying them that they were being taken for COVID-19 tests.

The Biden administration should demand that Qatar immediately disclose Bidali’s whereabouts, what charges he faces, and whether he has received proper access to consular and legal assistance. The Qatari authorities should also release Bidali unless they have credible evidence against him. The Biden administration has, after all, pledged to put “human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” The administration should also press Qatar to enforce its labor reforms in a consistent and transparent manner. Should Doha fail to respond, public scrutiny of Qatar’s labor rights record should be increased as the World Cup draws closer.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. For more analysis from Varsha and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Gulf States