American tax dollars and the wartime needs of the U.S. military are fueling an illicit pipeline of cheap foreign labor, mainly impoverished Asians who often are deceived, exploited and put in harm's way in Iraq with little protection.
The United States has long condemned the practices that characterize this human trade as it operates elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet this very system is now 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.
To document this system, the Chicago Tribune retraced the journey of 12 Nepalese men kidnapped last year from an unprotected convoy en route to an American military base in Iraq. The Tribune's reporting found that:
To maintain the flow of low-paid workers key to military support and reconstruction in Iraq, the U.S. military has allowed KBR to partner with subcontractors that hire laborers from Nepal and other countries that prohibit citizens from being deployed in Iraq. That means brokers recruiting such workers operate illicitly.
The U.S. military and KBR assume no responsibility for the recruitment, transportation or protection of foreign workers brought to the country. KBR leaves every aspect of hiring and deployment in the hands of its subcontractors. Those subcontractors often turn to job brokers dealing in menial laborers.
Working in tandem with counterparts in the Middle East, the brokers in South and Southeast Asia recruit workers from 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 falsifying documents to complete the deception.
Even after foreign workers discover they have been lured under false pretenses, many say they have little choice but to continue into Iraq or stay longer than planned. They feel trapped because they must repay brokers' huge fees.
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 the treatment of foreign workers in the same Middle Eastern nations the United States relies on to supply labor for 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 Kuwait's and Saudi Arabia's efforts in the "global war on terror," President Bush waived the sanctions against them. This allowed more than $6 billion in combined military sales to go forward. One 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 figures compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private group, indicate that third-country nationals - neither Iraqis nor citizens from U.S. coalition members - account for more than 100 of the roughly 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 outlines the "legal and ethical behaviors that all employees and subcontractors are expected to follow in every aspect of their work."
The U.S. military has outsourced 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.
The subcontractors employ an army of workers from developing countries to dish out food, wash clothes and clean latrines. About 35,000 of the 48,000 people working for those subcontractors are not Americans, KBR has said.
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.
The Nepalese government must grant permission before workers can legally go abroad or brokers can legally send them. It has refused to do so for Iraq, because of the dangers there.
Some Nepalese job brokers have been raided or shut down, but it is unclear how vigorously authorities have pursued those involved. The government, consistently ranked among the world's most corrupt, has little incentive to do so because the Nepalese economy is reliant on the estimated $1 billion sent home each year by citizens working overseas.
Many Nepalis willingly assume the risks of working in Iraq, although their knowledge of its dangers before leaving home is questionable. Only 16 of every 1,000 Nepalis even had a phone line when the war broke out in 2003.
The U.S. military and KBR do not screen workers to determine whether they come from Nepal and other nations that prohibit their citizens from working in Iraq. But the military could easily do so, because it issues the badges listing each worker's nationality, name, job and the subcontractor employing him.
Asked what it was doing to stop the flow of workers from these nations or to monitor its subcontractors, KBR said questions "regarding the recruitment practices of subcontractors should be directed to the subcontractor."
The U.S. Army, which oversees the contract, said much the same. "Questions involving alleged misconduct towards employees by subcontractor firms should be addressed to those firms, as these are not Army issues."
KBR said it does not tolerate subcontractors that abuse their workers. But it declined to cite any specific actions taken against any of its subcontractors since the onset of the war.
The company did not respond to several questions about the case of the 12 Nepalis or any other specific abuses uncovered by the Tribune.
An estimated 10,000 of their countrymen are now in Iraq despite policies restricting such work. Many are employed at American bases where KBR runs support operations, according to Prakash Mahat, who was the Nepalese foreign minister until February.
The Philippines, originally a partner in the U.S.-led coalition, instituted a ban last summer after attacks against Filipino workers in Iraq. Before that, the nation had an arrangement that helped protect workers from exploitation because it effectively cut out the job brokers. Filipinos willing to risk working in Iraq went through official channels, which ensured that they didn't have to pay broker fees and helped guarantee contract terms.
But since the Philippine ban, Filipino workers hoping to go to Iraq go through agencies that operate illegally and charge exorbitant fees. The agencies deliver workers through neighboring Middle Eastern nations, said Ricardo Endaya, who was a senior official with the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad until recently.
Many firms engage in practices condemned by the United States, including luring workers with false promises or contracts, then switching jobs or terms upon arrival.
Even after they learn they'll be in a combat zone - or their wages will be less than promised - some feel compelled to go into Iraq or stay longer than planned so they can repay the money their families borrowed to send them.
"If I could leave now, I would, but I have not yet even paid off my loan," said Sahib Yadev, a 24-year-old from Uttar Pradesh, India, who was working at the American base called Camp Liberty, near Baghdad International Airport, when the Tribune interviewed him earlier this year.
A Tribune reporter embedded this summer with U.S. forces at Camp Liberty, which comes under fire almost daily, was taken to the base's living area for foreign workers operated by subcontractor Prime Projects International, or PPI, which has offices in the United Arab Emirates.
Several other workers interviewed shared Yadev's sentiment, but like most who work under KBR at U.S. bases in Iraq, they are not supposed to speak with journalists, and did so only on condition of anonymity. An American employee for KBR escorted the reporter to the camp, where the reporter interviewed several laborers.
All of the South Asian workers said PPI took their passports upon arrival. Western supervisors for PPI at the camp said the company keeps workers' passports for safety reasons. The supervisors said they feared if documents were lost, it would be difficult for laborers to get new ones, as most of their countries do not have embassies in Iraq.
Veerus, an Indian laborer who spoke on agreement that his last name not be used, said workers insisted they could care for their passports. But Veerus said PPI responded with an ultimatum: They would not be paid until PPI had their passports. Other workers at the camp suspected the firm kept the documents for another reason.
"We might transfer to another company," said another Indian laborer for PPI, who asked not to be identified. "They are paying very little salary, and other companies may be paying very good salaries. Without passports, they know we cannot leave."
(Simpson reported from Nepal, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Washington. Madhani reported from Iraq's Camp Liberty and Baghdad.)
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