Iraqi guards opened fire above the heads of 1,000 migrant workers who staged a
mini-riot today in protest at their poor treatment in Baghdad and the
prospect of being sent home without pay.
The men, from Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, will be flown to Dubai
after the Kuwaiti company that hired them failed to secure enough contract
work at dining facilities inside a number of US military bases across Iraq.
Their passports have also been taken.
"People are getting shot at," said Manoj Kodithuwakku, a 28-year-old from Sri
Lanka, speaking to The Times by mobile phone. The crack of bullets
could be heard in the background. "It is pandemonium in here," he said.
The men were flown to Baghdad over the past three months to work for Najlaa
International Catering Services, which is a subcontractor to Kellogg Brown
and Root (KBR), a major service provider to the US Department of Defence.
Each paid up to $3,000 (£2,000) to middlemen on the promise of work as soon as
they arrived. The jobs never materialised. Instead the men are kept inside
three, large warehouses surrounded by walls in a secured zone around Baghdad
Access to the area, which also houses US military bases and other entities, is
limited so The Times was prevented from entering to witness the
Testimony from the workers, however, painted a scene of chaos and resentment.
Most gave their passports yesterday to officials from the company following
assurances that they would be used facilitate the payment of wages to their
families rather than to insert exit visas.
By the morning, however, workers said there was no evidence that any money had
been dispatched and there was no sign of their passports.
In addition, five buses were parked outside the compound, prompting fears that
Najlaa was preparing to send them home.
Marwan Rizk, chief executive officer of Najlaa, confirmed this suspicion.
"They are being demobilized to their respective countries," he told The
Times. "It is because some contracts have basically vanished or been
Mr Rizk, speaking from Kuwait, said that each man would receive a month's
salary upon arrival in Dubai, a transit hub for people travelling from
Baghdad. Explaining why the workers who have been in Iraq for longer were
not receiving more, he said wages should only kick-in once a worker starts
his job, which never happened in this case.
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It was unclear whether the men would receive tickets for onward flights home.
Inside the warehouses, Sampa Fernando, 31, also from Sri Lanka, was very
upset. "Until now I do not have my passport," he said.
Anger at the situation erupted when two men, described as Iraqi immigration
officials, visited the compound. As they left one of the migrant workers
lobbed a water bottle in their direction, prompting others to start chucking
A Najlaa manager was also beaten in the foray, prompting Iraqi security
guards, who secure the warehouses, to open fire, shooting into the air,
according to a number of migrant workers.
"I saw them shoot with my own eyes," said Mr Fernando. "As soon as that
happened I ran. Nobody was killed and no one was injured in the shooting."
He said that a couple of the workers had cuts on their heads after being
accidentally caught in the firing line of the stones.
Iraqi police turned up to calm the situation down.
Some 447 men are due to be flown to Dubai tonight, Mr Kodithuwakku, added.
Mr Fernando pleaded for the US military, which has a base close by, to visit
the warehouses and speak to the workers. Each man came to Iraq in the belief
that they would work in a dining hall facility on a military camp.
"If the US army comes, we can talk to them," Mr Fernando, a father of two,
said. "We want to work. We need to work with the US Army.
"We came here to work for KBR, which works for the US army. We would like to
talk with them so that they can take action and decide if we are good or
not. This is a very bad situation in here. We need help."
A US military spokesman, in response to questions on the case, said: "We take
every allegation of human rights violation seriously and are looking into
the issue to ascertain the facts. Until that time, we will reserve comment
on the issue."