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IRAQ: Indian Contract Workers in Iraq Complain of Exploitation

by David RohdeThe New York Times
May 7th, 2004

May 7, 2004
FOREIGN LABOR
Indian Contract Workers in Iraq Complain of Exploitation
By DAVID ROHDE


ELICHAKKALA, India, May 5 Last summer an agent for an Indian recruitment company offered what seemed like the chance of a lifetime to Abdul Aziz Hamid and his younger brother Shahjahan.

For an $1,800 fee, the recruiter promised to get the two young south Indian men jobs as butchers on a military base in Kuwait for two years, they said. With salaries of $385 a month, a small fortune by Indian standards, they would join more than three million Indians already working in the Persian Gulf and enriching their families back home.

They mortgaged a relative's house and land, paid the fee and flew to Kuwait in August with two of their friends. What they say they encountered when they got there landed on the front pages of Indian newspapers this week, with one headline declaring "Indians Abused in Iraq" in "U.S. Slave Camps."

Within days, the brothers said, they and their friends found themselves on an American military base in northern Iraq working for a Saudi subcontractor of Kellogg, Brown & Root, or KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. They said their supervisor, who had taken their passports in Kuwait, told them they were obligated to work on the base for six months and could not leave.

Working alongside 200 other laborers, from India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, they first cleaned American latrines and then washed American dishes, the brothers said. Their pay was roughly $150 a month, they said, less than half of what the recruiter had promised.

"We were in hell," said Shahjahan, who returned here with his brother last week.

"I told my wife over the phone, `If God wills us, we will meet again.' "

Officials from Gulf Catering Company, a Saudi company hired by KBR to provide food services at six American bases in Iraq, confirmed that it employed the four men. But the officials denied that the men had been exploited, underpaid or prevented from leaving Iraq.

"The passports are only kept for safekeeping," said Nico Smith, the company's human resources manager. "When they wanted to resign we never said they can't go."

Wendy Hall, a spokeswoman for KBR, said Gulf Catering was a "second tier" subcontractor, one hired by another KBR subcontractor to work in Iraq. She said that this was the first time KBR had heard the allegations of worker mistreatment and that the company would aggressively investigate them.

"KBR has a policy to terminate any and all subcontractors if we know of mistreatment of employees," Ms. Hall said. "Under KBR policies our employees are allowed to quit and leave the sector at their choosing."

While KBR and its subcontractors deny mistreating the men, their allegations of exploitation have reverberated in India. The new charges come after graphic images of American soldiers humiliating and sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners have been splashed across Indian television screens and newspapers for a week.

Taken together, Indian officials said, the allegations have further dimmed the already remote chances that India might send troops to aid the American effort in Iraq.

In the wake of the allegations this week, the Indian government is demanding that the United States investigate and give an accounting of how many Indians are
employed in Iraq and how they are being treated.

A Pentagon spokesman said that the Defense Department was aware of the Indian government request and that any illegal activities would be investigated. He referred questions to the State Department, where an official said the reports were being taken seriously.

On April 15 the Indian government banned Indian workers from going to Iraq, but government officials acknowledge that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Indians already there. Two weeks ago, two men working for a contractor died in Iraq, according to an Indian government official, who did not identify the contractor.

The problem, according to Indian officials, is that despite their country's booming economy, millions of Indians are desperate for the wages the contractors can offer.

The two brothers said 250 other men were lined up at the recruiter's office in Mumbai, or Bombay, when they arrived last summer.

At the time, the Indian news media hailed the jobs with the United States military, with one headline declaring, "Mumbai Boys Get Ready to Cook Curry for U.S. Marines." Another declared, "Indian Job Seekers Join Bush Coalition."

The Hamid brothers and their friends said their biggest complaint was with the Indian firm that recruited them, Subhash Vijay Associates. The men said they had not been told they would be going to Iraq and bitterly complained about the $1,800 fee, which is more than four times India's average annual per capita income of roughly $400.

In a series of telephone interviews, Shukla Yadav, who described himself as an executive at the recruiting company, confirmed that it had sent the men to Kuwait. But he said he had no idea that they would then be sent to Iraq. He said the men had not paid an $1,800 fee, but declined to say what fee, if any, they or other clients pay.

Mr. Smith, the human resources director for Gulf Catering, said all of its workers were aware that they would be going to Iraq. But he said that many workers from India and other Asian countries complained about having to pay excessive fees to recruiting companies.

Mr. Smith, who joined Gulf Catering in February, said he tried to negotiate a reduction in the fees with the recruiting companies. Indian newspaper accounts quoted recruiting executives as saying they made fees of $300 to $800 per recruit.

"We got absolutely nowhere," Mr. Smith said. "They tell you one thing over the phone and things go on the same way." He said he had eventually been advised to "leave it be" and give up the effort.

While agreeing that the recruiting fees could be excessive, Mr. Smith said the men's accounts of being mistreated in Iraq were false. He said that no workers were held against their will and that passports had been collected after a fire on an American base destroyed some workers' passports.

To refute the men's account, he produced the name and telephone number of another Indian who had recently returned from Iraq. The man, who identified himself as Thomas Joseph, said in a telephone interview that he had been recruited by the Bombay firm and then worked for Gulf Catering in Iraq.

He said that he had paid the Bombay firm a $350 fee for locating the job and that he had signed a contract saying he would work for six month in Kuwait and, if necessary, Iraq. He said he had made $1,000 a month working as an executive chef in Iraq and remembered the four men who filed the complaints, whom he described as cleaners and dishwashers.

Mr. Joseph accused the men of making false statements but said he, too, had been put under pressure to remain in Iraq through the length of his contract. He said he had been told he would not receive a promised air ticket home to India if he left Iraq early.

"They said if you don't work the six months, they will not pay for the round-trip ticket."

Faisal Aliyalgunj, a 34-year-old father of three who is one of the four men complaining of mistreatment, said he blamed the Indian recruiting agent for his woes.

The fee he paid was so high, he said, that he actually lost money on his nine months in Iraq. His hopes of earning enough money to return home, buy land and build a house for his family died on a bleak American base in the desert of northern Iraq.

"We can blame neither the Americans nor the Iraqis," he said. "It's the company which cheated us."





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