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Migrant worker activist speaks at Oslo Freedom Festival in Taiwan

Kenyan labor activist Malcolm Bidali describes difficult work conditions, solitary confinement in Qatar

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Kenyan migrant worker activist Malcolm Bidali. (Taiwan News, Sean Scanlan photo)

Kenyan migrant worker activist Malcolm Bidali. (Taiwan News, Sean Scanlan photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Kenyan labor rights activist Malcolm Bidali said he was battling “demons” in his mid-20s when he decided to accept a labor contract to work as a security guard in Qatar and start his life over again.

A friend of his had offered a way out by earning a stable income with the opportunity to care for his mother financially. The only catch was that the job would be in Qatar.

“I visited an agent who offered a monthly salary of NT$12,000 (US$400) a month, but you had to pay a recruitment fee of US$1,200.” Shortly thereafter, Bidali would be working the first of two contracts that would take him to the Middle East.

“The company that I worked with on my first contract was fully compliant with all regulations. The second contract was totally different, as they took my passport and made me sleep in a room with up to 12 people. The bathrooms were appalling, and the food was bad, as we all thought that we were going to get sick," he said. "I was working with Msheireb Downtown Doha, and I discovered that they were not meeting labor regulations set forward by mandatory standards. It was not my intention to go public,” added Bidali.

Bidali started blogging anonymously under the pseudonym Noah Articulates. He said one of his skills is being able to write with a sense of danger. "Each post was about 1,200 words in English, and I worked with an editor at Migrant-Rights.org," he said.

His blog posts attracted attention, especially from government authorities, who became wary of his posts about labor violations. He was eventually detained by authorities, given no legal counseling, and subject to solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day for four weeks.

His only break from the monotony was bouts of interrogation. "They tried to get me to confess to taking payments from a foreign agent to spread disinformation. This is a serious charge of espionage in Qatar," he said.

Thankfully, his online audience, including students in Qatar, began to notice his absence, openly questioning, “Where is Malcolm?” As he attracted more attention on the internet, Qatari authorities had little choice but to release him. After all, he had committed no crimes other than reporting violations of labor rights on behalf of migrant workers.

“I was given counseling, set up in a hotel, and thankfully, I landed on my feet. When I came out, I had a vision for a center for other migrant workers where they could be similarly set up and helped. It is not enough to write articles and reports. We must do more," he said.

Bidaldi did not get off entirely, as he was forced to pay a fine of US$6,800 to Qatari authorities, but he was given his freedom back.

Since departing Qatar, Bidali has appeared at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2022. He has also started his own website, www.MigrantDefenders.org. When he gets back to Kenya, he will do a needs assessment to determine how he can help more migrant workers working in the Middle East and elsewhere.