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US: Return passports to Iraq workers

United Press International
April 24th, 2006

The U.S. military in Iraq has demanded that the passports of all employees of contractors and subcontractors serving the military in Iraq be returned to them by May 1.

It is also insisting that the thousands of civilian workers in Iraq and Afghanistan are given at least 50 square feet of personal living space per person.

'The right of freedom of movement and quality living standards are serious issues; [Multi-National Force Iraq] takes a zero tolerance approach to any violation,' states an April 19 memo from the Joint Contracting Command in Baghdad.

An inspection by the Multi-National Forces Iraq inspector general revealed a widespread practice of confiscating employee passports by contractors and subcontractors for the term of employment. It was meant to prevent employees -- most of them 'third-country nationals' from low-paying and poorly policed labor markets in Africa and Asia -- from 'jumping' to other employers in Iraq and Afghanistan for better pay or living conditions.

Most of the workers are employed under the $13 billion LOGCAP contract awarded to Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which in turn subcontracts out much of the work to other companies.

Because of the size of the LOGCAP contract, KBR has been under pressure to reduce the cost of services to the military, according to industry officials.

'Increasing expenditures in theater ... jeopardize our ability to maintain public support as the costs associated with our operations continue to rise,' wrote Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in a memo issued last summer and exclusively reported by UPI.

One of the few areas with flexibility in cost is the labor. Companies competing for KBR subcontracts routinely shop the world for the lowest-paid workers to fill positions at U.S. facilities -- cooking, cleaning and maintaining the physical infrastructure of the bases for 140,000 U.S. service members.

In some cases, workers are paid a pittance by Western standards. UPI reported in December that some food service employees from Sierra Leone were paid less than 50 cents an hour for their year-long contract. The workers were contractually prohibited from discussing the terms of their contract and their pay with outsiders but UPI obtained a copy of the employment contract.

The MNF-I inspection also revealed 'deceptive hiring practices and excessive recruiting fees, substandard worker living conditions at some sites; circumvention of Iraqi immigration procedures by contractors/subcontractors, lack of mandatory trafficking in persons awareness training,' according to an April 'FRAGO' order to the military. Both documents were obtained by David Phinney, a journalist with Corpwatch.

A Sierra Leone worker told UPI he had been promised an American visa by the recruiter if he accepted the job in Iraq. No such arrangements were made.

'All contractors engaging in this practice who have contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan are directed to cease and desist in this practice immediately. All passports are to be returned to employees by May 1,' states the April 19 memo.

The MNF-I inspector general will conduct a second round of inspections in the next three months to ensure compliance with the order.

If passports are not returned to employees and adequate living space provided, the U.S. military may terminate or suspend contracts, bar contractors from competing for future work, or give a negative past performance evaluation, which is supposed to diminish the chances of future contracts. The U.S. military can also bar and contractor in violation of the orders from setting foot on a military installation.

The memos state that future contracts with the U.S. military will include provisions allowing the U.S. government to terminate the contract without penalty if there is a violation of these laws. It will also require that all workers be furnished a signed copy of their contracts, and will prohibit unlicensed recruiting firms or recruiting firms that charge an unreasonable recruiting fee to workers from working with the U.S. military in Iraq.





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