Military Contractor in Iraq Holds Foreign Workers in Warehouses

Published on
by
McClatchy Newspapers

Military Contractor in Iraq Holds Foreign Workers in Warehouses

by
Adam Ashton

BAGHDAD - About 1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti
subcontractor to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as
three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without
money or a place to work.

Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor to KBR, an
engineering, construction and services company, hired the men, who're
from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, they staged a
march outside their compound to protest their living conditions.

"It's
really dirty," a Sri Lankan man told McClatchy, speaking on the
condition of anonymity because he still wants to work for Najlaa. "For
all of us, there are about 12 toilets and about 10 bathrooms. The food
- it's three half-liter (one pint) bottles of water a day. Bread,
cheese and jam for breakfast. Lunch is a small piece of meat, potato
and rice. Dinner is rice and dal, but it's not dal," he said, referring
to the Indian lentil dish.

After
McClatchy began asking questions about the men on Tuesday, the Kuwaiti
contractor announced that it would return them to their home countries
and pay them back salaries. Najlaa officials contended that they've
cared for the men's basic needs while the company has tried to find
them jobs in Iraq.

The laborers said they paid middlemen more
than $2,000 to get to Iraq for jobs that they were told would earn them
$600 to $800 a month. Some of the men took out loans to cover the fees.

"They
promised us the moon and stars," said Davidson Peters, 42, a Sri
Lankan. "While we are here, wives have left their husbands and children
have been shut out of their schools" because money for the families has
dried up.
The men live in three warehouses with long rows of bunk beds crammed
tightly together. Reporters who tried to get a better glimpse inside
were ushered away by armed guards.

The
conditions in which the men have been held appear to violate guidelines
the U.S. military handed down in 2006 that urged contractors to deter
human trafficking to the war zone by shunning recruiters that charged
excessive fees. The guidelines also defined "minimum acceptable" living
spaces - 50 square feet per person - and required companies to fulfill
the pledges they made to employees in contracts.

A U.S. military
spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq referred questions to KBR,
a Texas-based former subsidiary of Halliburton. The spokesman said that
the American military wasn't aware of the warehouses until McClatchy
and the Times of London began asking questions about it on Monday.

Some
of the men who've been living in the warehouses said that KBR
representatives visited the site two weeks ago. They said Najlaa held
their passports until the KBR inspection, which Najlaa officials
denied. Seizing passports is a violation of the U.S. military's 2006
instructions to contractors.

KBR didn't answer direct questions
about the warehouses but issued a two-paragraph statement. "When KBR
becomes aware of potential violations of international laws regarding
trafficking in persons, we work, within our authority, to remediate the
problem and report the matter to proper authorities. KBR then works
with authorities to rectify the matter," it said.

Reached in
Kuwait, Najlaa chief executive Marwan Rizk said the company recruited
the laborers for contracts it expected to begin servicing, but the work
didn't materialize. He didn't specify which contracts fell through or
why they were delayed. The company offers a number of services in Iraq,
including catering at U.S. military bases.
"We had some obstacles with the services we were contracted to do,"
Rizk said. "These obstacles were not forecasted."

He
said it's the company's practice to begin paying its employees once
they start their jobs, though Najlaa credits them from the time they
arrive in Iraq.

While the main complaint in the warehouses
centered on living in what many considered prison-like conditions,
Najlaa officials said it was crucial to keep the men in the compound to
prevent kidnappings or other dangers.
"We're in Iraq; it's a war zone," said Isha Rufaie, a Najlaa logistics
manager who tried to calm the protest Tuesday.

Peters,
the Sri Lankan, said the men had notified Najlaa officials in advance,
and the firm had agreed to let them protest their status outside their
compound. They walked in thick clusters up and down an airport side
road that wouldn't be visible even to the sparse traffic that passes on
the airport's primary routes.

The protest, nonetheless, caught
the attention of Sabre, a British company that holds a contract to
maintain security at the airport.

Sabre officers halted the
protest by telling Najlaa to get the men back in the compound. Najlaa
officials did so by telling the men they'd be paid Tuesday. They
returned to the camp voicing skepticism that Najlaa would follow
through. Some of them, reached by phone later in the day, said they
hadn't been paid.

Sabre representatives said they've closed similar buildings housing laborers near the airport in the past.
Peters, the Sri Lankan, had a message for his countrymen who might consider pursuing work in Iraq.
"There is little money here. The jobs do not come easily and people are being held against their wishes," he said.

A
group of about 50 men living in tents about a mile away were even worse
off than the men in the warehouses, and they appeared to be victims of
human trafficking. They live in huts they built with tarps and pieces
of carpet, and said they had no access to food or water.

The property is under the control of the Iraq Civil Aviation Administration, which couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

These
men apparently didn't arrive in Iraq with contracts promising them
work, but instead had relied on agents who were supposed to place them
in jobs. The men in the tent camp, who're from the same countries as
those in the warehouses, said they paid close to $5,000 to the agents.

"We
came to make a good salary and go home, but we're not lucky," said
Ganesh Kumar Bhagat, 22, a Nepalese man who sleeps with four others in
a tent along the main airport road.

He hasn't told his family
that his plans did not succeed in Iraq, instead assuring them that he
lives and works safely on an American base.

Bhagat and others at
the camp gave a McClatchy reporter phone numbers for the agents who led
them to Iraq. Some numbers had been disconnected. In other cases,
people quickly hung up.

Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)

 

 

 

 

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