War effort taps illicit labor trade

Hiring of poor, exploited workers central to KBR operations in Iraq

October 09, 2005|By CAM SIMPSON AND AAMER MADHANI | CAM SIMPSON AND AAMER MADHANI,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

American tax dollars and the wartime needs of the U.S. military are fueling an illicit pipeline of cheap foreign labor into Iraq, mainly impoverished Asians who often are deceived, exploited and put in harm's way with little protection.

The U.S. has long condemned the practices that characterize this human trade as it operates elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet this very system is part of the privatization of the American war effort and is central to the operations of Halliburton subsidiary KBR, the U.S. military's biggest private contractor in Iraq.

The Chicago Tribune has found that to maintain the flow of cheap labor key to military support and reconstruction in Iraq, the U.S. military has allowed KBR to join with subcontractors who hire workers from Nepal and other countries that prohibit their citizens from being deployed in Iraq. That means brokers recruiting such workers operate illicitly.

Working in tandem with counterparts in the Middle East, brokers in South and Southeast Asia recruit workers from poor, rural villages in some of the world's most remote areas. They lure laborers to Iraq with false promises of lucrative, safe jobs in nations such as Jordan and Kuwait, even crafting falsified documents to complete the deception.

The U.S. military and KBR assume no responsibility for the recruitment, transportation or protection of foreign workers brought to Iraq. KBR leaves every aspect of their hiring and deployment in the hands of its subcontractors.

Even after foreign workers discover they have been lured to the Middle East under false pretenses, many say they have little choice but to continue into Iraq or stay there longer than planned. They say they feel trapped because huge fees demanded by brokers along the way have left them penniless and their families deeply in debt.

Some U.S. subcontractors in Iraq - and the brokers feeding them - employ practices condemned by the U.S. elsewhere, including fraud, coercion and seizure of workers' passports.

The State Department has long expressed concerns about treatment of foreign workers in the same Middle Eastern nations the U.S. relies on to supply cheap labor at bases in Iraq. In June, the department added four of these nations - Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - to the top tier of its human trafficking watch list for not undertaking "significant efforts to combat forced labor trafficking."

U.S. law calls for sanctions in such cases. But last month, citing their efforts in the "Global War on Terror," President Bush waived the sanctions against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, allowing more than $6 billion in combined military sales to go forward. The next day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice moved Qatar and the UAE off the top tier, saying they had made progress since the initial report this year.

A key reason laborers from developing countries are sought for work in Iraq is the U.S. military fears that hiring Iraqis would allow insurgents to infiltrate its bases.

Halliburton would not say whether it includes such laborers in its public tallies of contractor casualties in Iraq. But Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private group, estimates third-country nationals - neither Iraqis nor citizens from U.S. coalition members - account for more than 100 of the approximately 270 contractor fatalities in the country since the start of the war. Those numbers are based on the group's tracking of Defense Department releases and media accounts.

Halliburton declined to make KBR executives available for an interview, agreeing to respond only to written questions from the Tribune. In a written statement, Halliburton said it operates under a "rigorous code of business conduct" that outlines the "legal and ethical behaviors that all employees and subcontractors are expected to follow in every aspect of their work."

The company also said KBR's subcontracts outline "required levels of life support that each subcontractor must provide its employees," including "military-provided security protection at a level commensurate with the threat environment."

The U.S. military outsources vital support operations in Iraq to KBR at an unprecedented scale, a deal that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $12 billion. KBR, in turn, outsources much of that work to more than 200 subcontractors, many of them based in the Middle East.

In turn, the subcontractors employ an army of workers from developing countries to dish out food, wash clothes, dig ditches, raise shelters and clean latrines. About 35,000 of the 48,000 people working for those subcontractors are not Americans, according to KBR.

According to salary statements obtained by the Tribune, the pay for such workers can range from about $65 to $112 weekly - a fortune to those scratching a living from the farm fields and brick factories of Nepal, where the per capita annual income is about $270.

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