Behind the glamour of international sports events: The broken bodies of workers
In this Dec. 15, 2019, file photo, a worker cleans above air conditioning vents at Qatar Education Stadium, an open cooled stadium with a 45,350-seat capacity, and one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums, in Doha, Qatar. Addressing airborne threats like the novel coronavirus is a particular challenge, especially when they can stick around for hours wherever they might land. The good news is many venues already use high-efficiency filtration that can capture most virus particles and keep them from spreading. The bad news is even the world’s most effective HVAC systems can’t do anything about the germs fans might touch on a railing or catch from a cough down the row. | Hassan Ammar/AP

Behind the glamour of major sporting events and global competitions lay the mangled, scarred, and broken bodies of the workers—low-wage slaves—who make it possible for us to enjoy such visceral entertainment.

And the body count in Qatar, sight of the 2022 FIFA world cup, continues to rise. Thousands of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have died over the past decade while building Qatar’s 2022 World Cup stadium.

Despite recent changes to Qatar’s labor laws, Sept. 8, 2020—including a standard minimum wage and removing migrant workers’ need for employer approval to change jobs—issues remain with such a transition and how effectively the government enforces and consistently applies the new labor laws. Meaning not much has changed for migrant workers and advocating for worker rights can be life-threatening.

Malcolm Bidali, 28, a Kenyan security guard working at the 2022 FIFA stadium site, was detained by Qatar security forces, May 4, according to supporters. His crime? “Violating Qatar’s security laws and regulations,” the Qatari government said in response to questions from the Associated Press.

Bidali spoke up for his fellow workers. That was the violation.

Using the pen name “Noah,” Bidali wrote about the working and living conditions for migrant workers. And about his efforts to try and improve his worker accommodations. He did not bite his tongue when it came to describing the packed bedrooms of his workers—with up to 10 workers in a small room, and the frustration of being unable to afford the “luxury of privacy” enjoyed by white-collar western ex-patriots and Qataris.

“Why should intimacy, and even family life, be reserved for the privileged nationalities and financially affluent?” he asked in one article.

Bidali worked 12-hour days, six days a week, and earned poverty wages. Recently, security guards at two Qatar companies went out on strike over pay and labor issues. Under Qatar’s trade union law, only nationals with the General Union of Workers in Qatar have the right to strike.

These restrictive trade union laws stem from the recurring strikes of workers in the Qatar Petroleum Company taking place in 1957 and led to the outlaw of all trade unions in the country. It stayed that way until 2004 when the government ruled workers would be allowed to organize unions once again.

The Kenyan Embassy in Qatar did not respond to requests for comments.

A coalition of organizations working on the rights of migrant workers in Qatar –, FairSquare, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre – have contacted various Qatari authorities in the weeks since Malcolm’s arrest.

While the cause of his detention remains unclear, Bidali spoke and briefly appeared in a video conference with civil society and trade unions describing his situation. Activists watching say Bidali clicked on a questionable internet link during the call. The Gulf Arab States often use spyware and malware to hack and monitor local activists and dissenters, but it is unclear who, if anyone, targeted Bidali.

“Since arriving in Qatar three years ago Malcolm has been on the front line of the fight to reform Qatar’s labor laws, including by writing about his experiences as a migrant worker in the country. It has now been more than a week since anyone heard from Malcolm, and we are extremely concerned for his well-being,” said the coalition.

Read Bidali’s worker dispatches here.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.