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IRAQ: Caught in Trafficking

by David PhinneyInter Press Service News Agency
June 15th, 2007

Trained as an air conditioning repairman and technician, Ramil Autencio says his recruiter in the Philippines agreed to place him in a two-year job at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for 450 dollars a month -- maybe more with overtime.

But when he arrived at the Kuwait airport in December 2003, Autencio says he was quickly shuttled to a rundown three-story building managed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a Kuwaiti firm doing a booming multi-million-dollar business with the U.S. military and the Pentagon's primary support contractor Kellogg Brown and Root.

To date, the company has billed the U.S. government perhaps 2 billion dollars for work in Iraq, including the 592-million-dollar U.S. embassy in Baghdad now nearing completion.

There were no more jobs at the hotel, Autencio was told, and because the recruiter only processed him for a one-month travel visa, he was told he could not stay in Kuwait. Autencio said First Kuwaiti offered him one of three options: pay a 1,000-dollar penalty and work in Kuwait for free for six months; be arrested and jailed; or work for the company in Iraq.

As he weighed these choices, he would live in the building with 800 other Filipinos where, at first, there were no mattresses or blankets. They ate only chicken and rice under the crumbling ceilings. Because Autencio had worked in Kuwait before, he says he was able to borrow cooking utensils from supportive Filipinos in Kuwait aware of their plight.

"A jail would be better," Autencio recalled. "We were ordered to go...They forcibly brought us to Iraq."

Autencio says he ended up living a wartime nightmare, pushing boulders 11 hours a day, seven days a week for a contractor fortifying a U.S. military camp in Tikrit.

Showers to wash off the day's sweat were an uncertainty, and in the chilly January and February nights of 2004, he and seven other Filipinos would live in an empty truck container with no windows, sleep on cardboard boxes, and eat leftovers and meals-ready-to-eat from soldiers.

The sounds of crackling gunfire and crashing incoming mortars would wake the workers at all hours of the night and the unfortified trailer would tremble and shake from nearby rocket blasts.

Former supervisors with First Kuwaiti who have since left the company call the three-story building where Ramil and the 800 Filipinos awaited their jobs in Iraq "Jaleeb".

"They would lock them in without documents -- no passports or IDs," recalled one longtime supervisor. "The building was so crowded, you could barely breathe." Many say one Filipino lost his mind and died while Autencio was there.

Another supervisor agreed the building was "a mess," and said after much urging, it was cleaned up sometime in 2006.

First Kuwaiti's general manager, Wadih Al-Absi, has consistently denied that his company would ever endorse such recruitment practices. In numerous conversations, he has said that First Kuwaiti never pressured workers to go to Iraq or violated international visa requirements. During one meeting in Washington in September 2005, he said that people envied his company's success, which thrived under U.S. contracts in Iraq.

"People will never criticise someone who fails," he said.

Al-Absi also flatly accused Autencio of lying. His proof is a working agreement, purportedly signed by Autencio before leaving the Philippines. Although Al-Absi admitted that unscrupulous recruitment agencies do sometimes misrepresent jobs and take money from people eager to work, he provided Autencio's undated contract with First Kuwaiti that identified the job site as both Kuwait and "mainly" Iraq.

The agreement also lays out salary: 346 dollars a month for eight-hour days, seven days a week, plus 104 dollars a month for mandatory two hours overtime every day.

However, despite Al-Absi's protests of innocence, the Philippine government placed First Kuwaiti on a "Watch List" in June 2005 as a warning to the company to comply with worker contracts. Al-Absi said he was unaware of that action.

One frequent complaint among Filipino workers is that they are issued tourist visas when traveling to the Middle East for work, a Philippine official explained. Such visas prevent them from getting the jobs they planned to have and they then have few options but to take work in Iraq.

First Kuwaiti placed a job order with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration in November 2003 for more than 700 workers, according to the official. Only 41 of those jobs were listed for Iraq, while the remainder was advertised as being in Kuwait.

One former First Kuwaiti logistics manager who processed workers said he witnessed the company send more than 500 Philippine labourers into Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 to work on the construction of U.S. military camps.

Because of allegations of labour trafficking and other abuses, First Kuwaiti is also being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, an action precipitated by U.S. citizens claiming that company workers loaded onto planes in Kuwait were handed boarding passes for Dubai before flying directly to Baghdad. The passengers were mostly low-wage Asian migrant labourers earning as little as 250 dollars a month.

The U.S. State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard recently investigated similar allegations of trafficking and worker abuse in September 2006. After a brief site review of First Kuwaiti's work at the U.S. embassy project in Baghdad, Krongard stated flatly noted in a nine-page memorandum posted on the State Department's Web site that "Nothing came to our attention."

However, an addendum inspection by the Multi-National Force inspector general in Baghdad did find after interviewing a total of 36 workers that many reported deceptive hiring practices by recruitment agencies in their home countries.

Krongard's office admitted this week that First Kuwaiti was given a three-month notice before his inspection.

In April 2006, the Pentagon confirmed in a new contracting order that an investigation of U.S.-funded contractors in Iraq found significant evidence of deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees indebting workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures. It also noted that the passports were illegally confiscated by employers and the lack of mandatory "awareness training" in labour trafficking.

"Leaders must understand the dynamics and indicators of trafficking and be vigilant in correcting and reporting suspected violations or activities," the Pentagon stressed in the contracting order.

No company or contractor is named in the Pentagon's findings. Nor has the U.S. government publicly penalised or prosecuted any U.S.-funded contractor in Iraq for labour trafficking and abuse.

The U.S. State Department recently awarded some 200 million dollars in new contracts to First Kuwaiti for embassy work in Africa, India and Indonesia. The company also is said to be competing for a new U.S. embassy project in Lebanon.

Autencio's story is now featured in the documentary "Someone Else's War," now circulating in the Philippines and at U.S. film festivals, and the Philippines is again reviewing First Kuwaiti's association with job recruiters.



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