MANILA -- Rey Torres went to Iraq to make a better life. He returned to the
Philippines in a body-bag.
On April 17, Iraqi insurgents gunned down the 30-year-old truck driver and
security guard in an attack in Baghdad. Just before the ambush, Torres had
sent his wife, Gorgonia, a text message to say he would soon send money so
she could buy 50 kilograms of rice for each of his brothers and sisters. The
father of five earned $350 U.S. a month in Iraq, money that was helping his
family to climb out of poverty.
Several days later, another Filipino, Marcelo Salazar, 46, was killed when
the U.S. military vehicle he was driving rolled over.
That same week, insurgents ambushed five Filipino workers and injured two as
they fled for the Baghdad airport. They had originally been hired for jobs
in Jordan, but when they arrived, their employer shipped them to Iraq to
work at U.S. military bases in Al-Assad and Taji. Fed up with the constant
attacks on those installations, the Filipinos were trying to flee when
The incidents highlight the dirty secret of the private security business.
While hundreds of millions in profits are being made by U.S. and British
firms that provide support services to American forces in Iraq, it is
citizens from poor nations such as the Philippines who do most of the work
and are killed or injured in the process.
It is estimated 6,000 Filipinos work in Iraq, guarding installations,
driving and repairing trucks, cleaning clothes and cooking for U.S.
soldiers. Most work at U.S. bases and represent the largest single group of
foreign workers employed by Pentagon contractors. Six have died, 17 others
have been injured. Two have been abducted by insurgents.
A truck driver recruited in the United States to work in Iraq earns about
$100,000 U.S. a year. A Filipino behind the wheel of a transport hauling
supplies for a Pentagon contractor there earns $500 a month.
Former American or Canadian soldiers working in Iraq for a private security
company could expect at least $120,000 U.S. a year. A Filipino army combat
veteran can be recruited for $40,000. And in the Philippines, where half the
population lives on less than $2 a day, there's no shortage of recruits.
"This is nothing but exploitation, a form of labour conscription by these
companies," says Maita Santiago, secretary-general of Migrante
International, a Manila-based watchdog group that oversees Filipino workers.
The organization has received complaints from Filipino workers in Iraq,
ranging from poor living and employment conditions to non-payment of wages.
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In May, 300 Filipinos employed at a U.S. military camp in the Iraqi province
of Taji went on strike over unsatisfactory food, poor accommodations and
long hours. The workers complained, for instance, they slept 12 to a room in
stifling heat and without air conditioning.
Yet the number of Filipinos in Iraq has in the past year jumped to 6,000
from an estimated 4,000. They are known as "Third Country Nationals" or
While Filipinos are the backbone of the private military contracting
industry in Iraq, there are also truck drivers from Bangladesh, construction
workers from Pakistan and electricians from Sri Lanka. Compared to what they
could earn at home, their salaries are substantial, although nothing
compared to the earnings of their western counterparts. Former soldiers from
Fiji, Colombia, Ecuador, Sri Lanka and Nepal have been recruited to fill the
ranks on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, again a move dictated by
"It's cost effective," explains Doug Brooks, president of the International
Peace Operations Association, which represents some of the largest firms in
the security industry. "You're looking for professional security people and
a lot of them are available (in these nations) with military experience,
often-times with combat experience."
Of the 20,000 private foreign soldiers in Iraq, more than half are from
developing nations, particularly in Asia and South America. Last year,
Blackwater U.S.A., one of the most successful U.S. private military firms,
hired 60 former Chilean commandos for operations in Iraq. Triple Canopy, a
Virginia security company operated by former U.S. special forces soldiers,
recruited last year in the Philippines and El Salvador. The salary offered
to soldiers was about $1,700 a month, three to six times what they would
normally earn on the job in their home countries.
"It's an incredible amount of money that some of my men would not be able to
resist," said one Filipino officer.
But besides costing less, troops from developing nations don't complain
about tough or tedious work conditions.
"There's no value in having some ex-U.S. special forces guy guard a front
gate," explains Mike, a retired Canadian Forces officer who works in Iraq as
a manager for a British security company. "He's not doing a better job than
the guy from El Salvador, but he gets bored more easily and needs to go home
on leave. So you take a couple of Salvadorans, Colombians, Fijians and put
them at the gate, they do a good job and everybody's happy."
Mike, who asks that his last name not be used, said it makes economic sense
to use western-trained soldiers in management positions while those from
developing nations form the rank-and-file of the private armies.
That trend is reminiscent of how private military companies operated
hundreds of years ago, says Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors, a
book on the security industry.
Singer warns that recruiting inexpensive workers from developing countries
raises questions about their training and whether they can be relied on if
the security situation deteriorates.
But, he says, "This is a market. Everything comes with tradeoffs."
Retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who commanded United Nations troops
in Rwanda, questions if former soldiers are trained in human rights and
handling captives. He also wonders about the motivation of such forces.
"They're not looking for soldiers with the depth and commitment to the
mission," said Dallaire, now a senator. "They're going in there because of a
buck and they're going to send substandard capabilities to make even more
Other critics question the recruiting of former soldiers from such countries
as Colombia, where troops have been accused of human rights abuses.
South Africa has banned its citizens from taking part in outright mercenary
activities and heavily regulates those who want to be involved with private
secutiry firms. Nepal banned its citizens from working in Iraq after
insurgents killed 12 Nepalese cooks and cleaners last year.
But South African combat veterans and former Nepalese soldiers ignore work
bans. Nepalese cooks and truck drivers still slip into Iraq.
The Philippine government has also discovered how difficult it is to prevent
its citizens from working in Iraq, as well as the political consequences of
Last July insurgents kidnapped Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz and
threatened to decapitate him if the 50-member Filipino military contingent
was not withdrawn from Iraq. Manila agreed and de la Cruz, who at the time
of his capture was driving an oil tanker to a U.S. base in Fallujah, was
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then banned the country's
citizens from working in Iraq. That same month, Filipino officials prevented
120 people from boarding flights from Manila to Dubai in the belief they
were going to seek employment in Iraq. But with more than a million
Filipinos working overseas as foreign labourers, trying to figure out which
ones will end up in Iraq is almost impossible. They simply travel to Kuwait
or other countries in the region and are then transported over the border to
work for Pentagon contractors.
The issue divides Filipino lawmakers. Workers in Iraq send home millions of
much-needed foreign currency that keeps many Filipino families out of
poverty. Some politicians worry that if the supply of Filipino workers is
cut off, then companies will simply increase their recruiting from
Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
The U.S. government, realizing how much its military relies on the Filipino
labourers in Iraq, has quietly pressured the Arroyo government to lift its
ban. Others, such as Senator Panfilo Lacson, who calls the workers "modern
day heroes of our country," favour lifting the ban in areas in Iraq that
might be considered safe. Among those locations are U.S. military bases, he
But Maita Santiago says the ban lets the Arroyo government wash its hands
when Filipinos are killed or kidnapped, allowing them to argue they were not
supposed to be in Iraq in the first place.
At the same time, she says, it ignores the greater issue.
"Filipinos are forced to work in the middle of a war zone because of the
bankruptcy of the government's economic policies. With no jobs here there is
no alternative if you want to feed your family."
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