Doing the Dirty Work

In coordination with the new documentary, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, ColorLines joins the members of the Media Consortium to cover the role of privatization in Bush's decision to wage war in Iraq.

By Pratap Chatterjee Sep 06, 2006

In coordination with the new documentary, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, ColorLines joins the members of the Media Consortium to cover the role of privatization in Bush’s decision to wage war in Iraq.  Read our partners’ coverage here.

The muezzin’s call to prayer echoes across Dubai’s empty streets at dawn. At Terminal Two of the city’s international airport, right across from a giant mosque where a few faithful and religious gather for the morning ceremony, taxis arrive to drop off the first passengers of the day. Unlike its sister building several kilometers away, this terminal does not have banks of gleaming silver escalators, no advertisements for duty-free shopping, seven-star resorts or even for the famous gold souks (markets) of the city. Nor do its departure and arrival screens flash data from any of the more popular destinations: London, Paris, New York, Bangkok.

No, the flights that depart from this terminal are on their way to destinations like Beshehr (which houses an Iranian nuclear reactor), Bossaso (smuggling central in Somalia) and Baku (oil capital in the Central Asian state of Azerbaijan). But by far the most popular destinations on the list are Baghdad and Kabul, via airlines like African Express, Al Ishtar and Jupiter. Flights are announced on a regular basis, but some have no check-in gates, and simply vanish off the screens after staying up for a short time. Most flights arrive and depart several hours after schedule.

Welcome to one of the world’s most mysterious airports. Every morning, from dawn till about noon, passenger flights leave for Iraq and for Afghanistan, together with a dozen or so private cargo flights, making this possibly the busiest commercial terminal in the world for the "global war on terrorism." Tickets to either destination go for about $400 a seat, round-trip; cargo travels for about $2 a kilogram.

Most of the passengers at this terminal are Afghan or Iraqi, but every morning a few Americans, Indians and Filipinos arrive, often accompanied by minders to make sure that they catch their flights: some from the United States embassy or military, others from Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), the biggest contractor in both countries.

Today, because of the combination of a U.S. policy to minimize the number of American soldiers on active duty in the war zone and a volunteer army unwilling to perform menial tasks, the bulk of the military support force in Iraq are tens of thousands of poor migrant workers. Called "Third Country Nationals" (TCNs), they come from Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and are paid monthly salaries between $200 and $1,000. They work as truck drivers, construction workers, carpenters, warehousemen, laundry workers, cooks, accountants, beauticians and similar blue-collar jobs for the U.S. military.

Smuggling People

On Saturday, December 10, 2005, flight XU 106 of African Express Airways, officially based in Nairobi, Kenya, was scheduled to take off from Terminal Two in Dubai for Mosul, in northern Iraq, when immigration caught 88 Filipino workers preparing to leave on the early morning flight after arriving in the country on tourist visas.

Officially the Philippine government has banned its nationals from working in Iraq after truck driver Angelo de la Cruz was kidnapped in July 2004. In addition at least six Filipino workers have also been killed while working in Iraq over the last two years. In an attempt to prevent workers from going to Iraq, all new Filipino passports are now stamped with "Not Valid for Travel to Iraq."

Arrested together with the 88 workers was Jordanian national Mah’d Moh’d Ahmad Hamza, also known as "Khalid." Hamza was issued a temporary visitor’s visa to the Philippines by the country’s consulate in Dubai on September 19, 2005, on behalf of a labor recruitment agency named Tierra Mar of Manila. The workers say that they paid the agency between 40,000 to 70,000 pesos each (US$760 to $1,330) for the jobs.

The 88 workers were deported back to Manila the following week and Tierra Mar has been placed under investigation for breaking the ban. However, government officials say the incident may just be the tip of the iceberg.

"United Arab Emirates seems to be a favored jump-off point because of the facility in obtaining a visit visa to this country," Philippine Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas, told reporters. "We received information that the modus operandi of those circumventing the government restriction seems to be the use of old passports without the travel ban stamp," she added.

Today some 6,000 Filipinos are estimated to continue to work in Iraq. Many of these workers have intentionally chosen to work in Iraq because of the relatively high pay for unskilled jobs while others have been forced to go to that country against their will, according to interviews with workers conducted by CorpWatch.

Human Trafficking

Dozens of young Indian men from the northern state of Punjab traveled to Dubai in early 2005 enticed by promises of salaries of $750 a month to work as drivers in Kuwait. They followed a dream that millions of Indians have pursued over the last three decades, in the hope of making a fortune in the oil-rich Middle East, or at the very least saving a small nest egg. For this dream, they each paid $2,700, typically borrowed from a loan shark, that they thought they could pay off in a matter of months.

But the youth were in for a rude shock when they touched down in Dubai. Packed into a 35-seater plane soon after they arrived, they discovered that were being flown, not to the staid safety of Kuwait, but to Baghdad and Mosul, two of the most dangerous locations in the U.S. war in Iraq. They were unwitting victims of a scam by unscrupulous employment agencies.

Baljinder Singh and Karanpal, told Indian newspapers later that they "were locked up in a small area which had a heavy wiring all around. We were made to do menial tasks for U.S. soldiers like picking up their excreta, washing their clothes, picking up their cigarette butts—all this for $US50 a month, and a plate of boiled rice once a day. If we raised our voice we were tortured.”

"We were made to drive trucks right into the areas where bombs were being dropped. We could not protest either, for our passports were with the company authorities,” said another worker named Dharampal, of Siala village in Punjab.

Rescued after eight months by sympathetic Indian embassy staff, the men returned to India, their dreams shattered and deep in debt. In late December 2005, several went public with the help of a former minister.

These young men were not the first to, knowingly or unknowingly, end up in Iraq, nor may they be the last. Hundreds of retired Indian soldiers took security jobs in Iraq soon after the invasion. Worried that this might create the impression that the Indian government was supporting the occupation of Iraq, the Indian government passed a law on April 15, 2004, making it illegal to work in Iraq.

Yet for the ex-soldiers, the salaries were hard to turn down—a private was being offered as much as $750 a month, a captain $1,250, major/lieutenant-colonel $1,750, a colonel $2,500 and brigadier $3,500. By comparison even a high-ranking brigadier in the Indian Army earns much less than $1,000 a month when working in India.

Prime Projects International

One of the key players in the supply of labor to Iraq is located a 20-minute ride from the airport in a skyscraper that overlooks Dubai Creek. On the fifth floor of the Twin Towers, behind the dark steel blue glass windows that reflect the sun as it sets over the ocean in the evening, are the offices of Prime Projects International (PPI).

On November 10, 2005, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, gave a special "International Employer Awards" at Malacanang palace to Neil Helliwell, chief executive officer of PPI. The award was for "displaying continuous preferences for Filipino workers and providing them with excellent career advancement and generous package of employment benefits." Yet, curiously enough, the company’s chief business is supplying unskilled labor for the U.S. "global war on terror."

Helliwell and his partner, Toby O’Connell, first won a subcontract from Halliburton subsidiary KBR, just months after September 11, 2001, when he was hired to help construct prisons in Guantanamo Bay for KBR with low-wage Filipino labor.

Since then Helliwell and O’Connell have supplied workers to build the giant U.S. military base in Balad, northern Iraq, named Camp Anaconda, and today they are estimated to supply over 7,000 workers to their clients. The work is surely profitable, because in May 2005 the two men bought a yacht named "Pacific 50, Yo!" that they raced off the coast of Thailand on the island of Koh Samui.

Meanwhile, their workers who have made it into Iraq complain that they have been treated very badly. "TCNs had a lot of problems with overtime and things," recalls Sharon Reynolds of Kirbyville, Texas, who was employed as a Halliburton administrator. "I remember one time that they didn’t get paid for four months."

Reynolds, who spent 11 months in Iraq until April 2005, says she was responsible for processing time sheets for 665 TCNs employed by PPI at Camp Victory near Baghdad. The 14,000 troops and the American contractors based at Saddam Hussein’s former palace have use of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a manmade lake preserved for special events and fishing.

But TCNs had to make do with far less. "They don’t get sick pay and if PPI had insurance, they sure didn’t talk about it much," Reynolds recalls. "TCNs had a lot of problems with overtime and things…I had to go to bat for them to get shoes and proper clothing."

As for living conditions, TCNs "ate outside in 140-degree heat," she says. American contractors and U.S. troops ate at the air-conditioned Pegasus Dining Facility featuring a short-order grill, salad, pizza, sandwich and ice cream bars under the KBR logistics contract.

"TCNs had to stand in line with plates and were served something like curry and fish heads from big old pots," Reynolds says incredulously. "It looked like a concentration camp,"

And even when it came to basic safety, the TCNs faced a double standard. "They didn’t have personal protection equipment to wear when there was an alert," Reynolds said. "Here we are walking around with helmets and vests because of an alert and they are just looking at us wondering what’s going on."

Washington Responds?

In April 2006, General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, issued an order titled "Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in MNF-I," or Multinational Forces-Iraq, which noted that the military confirmed a number of human rights abuses on U.S. military bases. They included deceptive hiring practices; excessive fees charged by overseas job brokers who lure workers into Iraq; substandard living conditions once laborers arrive; violations of Iraqi immigration laws; and a lack of mandatory "awareness training" on U.S. bases concerning human trafficking, according to a copy of the memo summarized in the Chicago Tribune.

Casey ordered that contractors be required by May 1 to return passports confiscated from workers. Companies that failed to do this could be blacklisted from future work, and commanders could physically bar firms from bases, according to his order. The contractors were also required to meet "measurable, enforceable standards for living conditions (e.g., sanitation, health, safety, etc.) and establish 50 feet as the minimum acceptable square footage of personal living space per worker."

The decision was widely hailed and credited to State Department vigilance following an investigative series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune (despite the fact that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and CorpWatch reported on the same matter for two years).

Unfortunately the dirty truth of the matter is that every soldier and contractor in Iraq was aware that labor trafficking was standard operating practice since the invasion began in 2003, because all menial work on U.S. military bases is done by poor migrant Asian labor. Every meal served, every toilet cleaned, every building swept, is done by these migrant workers or poor Iraqis, paid sub-standard wages.

Reports from Dubai and Iraq indicate that the trafficking may have slowed after Casey’s memo, but not stopped. It has simply become more sophisticated, with workers and their families back home being threatened if they complain.

And for every worker who refuses to go, there are dozens who will take their place.

Maita Santiago, secretary-general for Migrante International, an organization that defends the rights of more than a million overseas Filipino workers, says that many workers "believe it is better to work in Iraq with their lives in danger rather than face the danger of not having breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Philippines."

Pratap Chatterjee is director of CorpWatch, an Oakland, California-based non-profit. He is the author of Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation (Seven Stories Press, 2004). David Phinney and Lee Wang contributed to this report.