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Operation Sweatshop Iraq

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
February 12th, 2004

Cartoonist: Khalil Bendib

Behind miles of coiled barbed wire, a maze of concrete barricades designed to stop the most determined suicide bomber and checkpoints run by heavily armed soldiers from the Florida National Guard, lies the Al Rasheed hotel, Baghdad's most exclusive, which modestly advertises itself as "more than a hotel." Today it serves as part of the temporary headquarters for the occupation forces in Iraq.

I was on my way to meet with a U.S. Army spokesperson, glad I had finally been granted an interview. It is difficult to get inside the hotel in the best of times -- the only way is via a personal invitation. It took three hours and multiple satellite phone calls routed through Virginia for us to connect that day because of an emergency shutdown. My army contact got confused as to where we were meeting, partly because he had only been in country for three weeks. Perhaps more importantly, because the occupation forces rarely leave the Green Zone, they have no idea how complicated it is for civilians to get in.

As I entered the Al Zaheer restaurant inside the hotel, I encountered three employees representing an unusual collection of South Asian nations whose governments have at times been bitter enemies: Muzaffar, a cook from a small village some 40 miles from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Shahnawaz, a waiter from Delhi, India and Ali from the lawless North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, who works behind the salad bar.

These men work quietly together serving meals in the dining room that seats some 300 people. Sprawled out at the tables are uniformed soldiers and Secret Service men with earpieces -- guns never more than an arm's length from their reach -- smartly dressed secretaries from military contracting firms and men in dark business suits, chatting loudly about the business of running a country.

The restaurant workers were brought together by a company named Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton of Houston, Texas. Halliburton has contracts in Iraq worth more than $8 billion that range from cooking meals, delivering mail, building bases to repairing Iraq's oil industry.

The company can't hire workers fast enough to fulfill their commitments, but the pay scales fluctuate wildly depending on the country of citizenship of the employee. Americans, who work at dead-end, low-wage jobs at home, get paid handsomely even by US standards. Iraqi salaries start at $100 a month and imported South Asian workers get three times that. Meanwhile Halliburton is being investigated by the US military for overcharging US taxpayers to the tune of at least $16 million.

Halliburton's Dirty Dishes

I was invited to lunch at the Al Zaheer restaurant by Richard Dowling, the spokesperson for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Dressed in full tan military camouflage uniform, he is a cheerful, middle- aged white bearded civilian who has worked for the Army for 23 years. His appearance has earned him the name Baba Noel, the Arabic translation for Santa Claus.

I ate uneasily remembering an NBC news report that the Pentagon repeatedly warned Halliburton that the food it served to US troops in Iraq was "dirty," as were the kitchens it was served in. The Pentagon reported finding "blood all over the floor," "dirty pans," "dirty grills," "dirty salad bars" and "rotting meats ... and vegetables" in four of the military messes the company operates in Iraq.

Indeed even the mess hall where Bush served troops their Thanksgiving dinner was dirty in August, September and October, according to NBC. Halliburton promises to improve "have not been followed through," according to the Pentagon report that warned "serious repercussions may result" if the contractor did not clean up.

The meals at the Al Rasheed are mediocre -- certainly nothing to write home about. They are definitely a step up from the Meals-Ready-To-Eat issued to soldiers in the battlefield but the average hotel or restaurant in Baghdad could turn out equally mediocre or better food for a quarter of the price. For the kind of cash that the government is spending ($28 a day per soldier) the soldiers could be eating at the White Palace, one of the best restaurants in Baghdad, fancied by Paul Bremer, the United States ambassador who oversees the occupation authority in Iraq.

After our meal, I stop to chat with the workers who tell me they earn $300 a month including overtime and hazard pay. Asked what they think of their jobs, they are non-committal. "Chalta he," says one. (We manage somehow.) Muzaffar explains that it's a lot more than he makes at home. He's paid for his eldest daughter to get married to another Bangladeshi who lives in Saudi Arabia. But both he and his son-in-law rarely get to see their wives. His other daughter and his young son barely know him as he has lived abroad for 13 years.

While some of the men working for Halliburton in Iraq are recruited to these jobs directly from India by the Saudi-based Tamimi Corporation, most are brought over from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, where they were offered bonus pay to work in Iraq. One worker says that the company really didn't offer him a choice: it was Iraq or get laid off. These men never get to leave the grounds of the hotel or the Republican Palace because it is considered far too dangerous to venture out of the high-security Green Zone.

Our conversation is cut short by Tony, a Filipino American ex-Marine from Burlingame, California and the man in charge of the 60 South Asian staff, who strides over to the kitchen workers taking a break to say goodbye.

"Back to work," he snarls. "All of you in the kitchen now." As he speaks neither Urdu nor Bengali, the conversation is incomprehensible to him and maybe that makes him nervous.

"Tony's such a hard-ass," says Mike, one of the military contractors and witness to the exchange. "Give them a break," he calls out as I rise to leave. The three kitchen workers are apologetic. "Come back to meet us at the palace," they say. "Sometimes we cook Indian food here."

As we leave the hotel I ask Army Corp of Engineers spokesperson Dowling about the allegations that Halliburton in profiting out of the war in Iraq.

"Some may see it as war profiteering but for the young soldiers, it is hot food and a dry place to sleep," he explains. "Yes, it is a profit motive that brings companies into a dangerous location, but that is what capitalism is all about. Halliburton employees are under fire and several have died but they are still here. With all due respect to nonprofit organizations, like the United Nations and the Red Cross, they have pulled out. If it takes profit to motivate an organization to take a tough job, then that's the only way to do it," Dowling went on.

Cooking the Numbers

In December Halliburton estimated that it had served 21 million meals so far to the 110,000 troops at 45 sites in Iraq, according to numbers provided to an NBC reporter. But in recent weeks military auditors have started to suspect that the company may be cooking the numbers and over-charging the government by millions of dollars.

After I returned to the States, the Wall Street Journal reported in early February that Halliburton may have overcharged taxpayers by more than $16 million for meals to U.S. troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom for the first seven months of 2003. In July 2003 alone Halliburton billed for 42,042 meals a day but served only 14,053 meals daily.

I emailed Melissa Norcross, a spokesperson for Halliburton's Middle East region, about the phantom meals. She wrote back to CorpWatch with the following explanation from Randy Harl, chief executive officer of KBR:

"For example, commanders do not want troops "signing in" for meals due to the concern for safety of the soldiers; nor do they want troops waiting in lines to get fed."

Norcross also explained, however, that the "dirty kitchen" problems have been taken care of, and the facilities have since passed subsequent inspections.

"Keep in mind that serving food to more than 130,000 patrons daily in a hostile war zone is not easy. And it's worth noting that although there are many challenges involved in supplying food to more than 130,000 patrons every day, there are also accounts of wonderful things our employees do," according to the Halliburton spokesperson.

She quoted a note from a Halliburton client in Tall Afar, Iraq: "The commander gave kudos to staff for the Thanksgiving Meal served. He said it was the best he had ever seen and I told him that it was the best that I have seen anywhere in 23 years of government service."

Local Labor

Across the street from the Al Rasheed hotel stands the Baghdad convention center with a vast empty theater but lots of life in the offices from the basement to the third floor. Earnest Iraqis, the military and their private guards and the odd camera crew mostly populate the rooms.

Eventually a group of convention workers, wearing Halliburton badges, stop by to chat on their tea break. One of them tries several times to pronounce the word Congratulations but fails. Unable to wish his boss well, he exasperatedly turns to me to ask if there is a better word. I suggest slapping the boss on the back and saying: Good job! Well done! But he shakes his head violently. "No, I cannot say that - Mr. Lewis is an American, my boss. I must say something more polite."

The convention hall employees are friends and live in the same neighborhood. Every morning Halliburton sends a car to pick them up and bring them to work at 8:00 a.m. and take them back at 4:00 pm. The three are professionals who are better paid by Halliburton than [are] laborers. Khaled Ali is an engineer in charge of construction at the convention center, Saba Adel Mostafa is an interpreter, and Daoud Farrod is a supervisor. Farrod is older but the first two are in their late 20s. They are excited to work for Halliburton.

"It's my first job, I was not able to practice my English before. And the government pay before was just $10 a month," Saba says.

Khaled explains that it is his first job too. "And you are in charge of all the construction here?" I ask. He nods proudly, beaming when I exclaim, "Congratulations!" The three of them say that Halliburton workers earn a range from $100 to $300 a month - Saba earns $200.

Temps From Texas

Half a world away, another group of unemployed workers can be found at recruiting sessions in Houston. The company has been posting flyers at truck stops and posting advertisements on the internet. Four out of five of the recruits who are invited to training sessions who worked at a now defunct JC Penny store will be sent to Iraq. Halliburton sends an average of 500 recruits a week.

These men are not skilled. "They are unemployed and underemployed workers with few jobs in a U.S. economy that isn't producing many jobs," writes Russell Gold, a Wall Street Journal reporter. Gold interviewed men lining up for the training sessions, citing the example of one typical applicant whose previous job was transporting chickens for $12 an hour.

But when they arrive in Iraq, their navy blue American passports earn them a tidy sum of money: between $7,000 and $8,000 a month, generous sums, even by American standards. CorpWatch asked company spokesperson Norcross why there is such a huge disparity based on nationality in the wages Halliburton pays in Iraq.

"We will not discuss our specific wage structures. Our compensation packages and the compensation packages provided by our subcontractors are based on a wage scale that was recommended by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and are competitive in terms of the local market," she wrote back.

When I posed the same question to Army spokesperson Dowling, we got a more revealing answer.

"These workers consider themselves fortunate to have jobs even if it means them traveling somewhere else. There is an army of companies that move from conflict to conflict with experience in setting up chow halls from an empty field to a 1,000 army camp in a matter of days. It's not an easy job and these guys are good at it. They bring their own people with them - people with experience in other military locations," Dowling explained.

"The (salary) decision is not based on the value of his life but on the cost of training and equipping the workforce. Nor would it be right for the US Army to enforce US based salaries where no one else could match it. Life sometimes isn't fair," he concluded.

I'm sure Al Rasheed waiters Muzaffar, Shahnawaz and Ali would agree.

Pratap Chatterjee is Program Director/ Managing Editor of CorpWatch.