1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti subcontractor to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or a place to work.
Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor to KBR, the Texas firm formerly known as Halliburton, hired the men, who are from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, they staged a march outside their compound to protest their living conditions.
"It's really dirty," a Sri Lankan man told McClatchy Newspapers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still wants to work for Najlaa. "For all of us, there are about 12 toilets and about 10 bathrooms. The food - it's three half-liter (1 pint) bottles of water a day. Bread, cheese and jam for breakfast. Lunch is a small piece of meat, potato and rice. Dinner is rice and dal, but it's not dal," he said, referring to the Indian lentil dish.
After McClatchy began asking questions about the men on Tuesday, the Kuwaiti contractor announced that it would return them to their home countries and pay them back salaries. Najlaa officials contended that they've cared for the men's basic needs while the company has tried to find them jobs in Iraq.
The laborers said they paid middlemen more than $2,000 to get to Iraq for jobs that they were told would earn them $600 to $800 a month. Some of the men took out loans to cover the fees.
"They promised us the moon and stars," said Davidson Peters, 42, a Sri Lankan. "While we are here, wives have left their husbands and children have been shut out of their schools" because money for the families has dried up.
The men live in three warehouses with long rows of bunk beds crammed tightly together. Reporters who tried to get a better glimpse inside were ushered away by armed guards.
The conditions in which the men have been held appear to violate guidelines the U.S. military handed down in 2006 that urged contractors to deter human trafficking to the war zone by shunning recruiters that charged excessive fees. The guidelines also defined "minimum acceptable" living spaces - 50 square feet per person - and required companies to fulfill the pledges they made to employees in contracts.
A U.S. military spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq referred questions to KBR. The spokesman said that the American military wasn't aware of the warehouses until McClatchy and the Times of London began asking questions about it on Monday.
Some of the men who've been living in the warehouses said that KBR representatives visited the site two weeks ago. They said Najlaa held their passports until the KBR inspection, which Najlaa officials denied. Seizing passports is a violation of the U.S. military's 2006 instructions to contractors.
KBR didn't answer direct questions about the warehouses but issued a two-paragraph statement. "When KBR becomes aware of potential violations of international laws regarding trafficking in persons, we work, within our authority, to remediate the problem and report the matter to proper authorities. KBR then works with authorities to rectify the matter," it said.
Reached in Kuwait, Najlaa chief executive Marwan Rizk said the company recruited the laborers for contracts it expected to begin servicing, but the work didn't materialize. He didn't specify which contracts fell through or why they were delayed. The company offers a number of services in Iraq, including catering at U.S. military bases.
"We had some obstacles with the services we were contracted to do," Rizk said. "These obstacles were not forecasted."
He said it's the company's practice to begin paying its employees once they start their jobs, though Najlaa credits them from the time they arrive in Iraq.
While the main complaint in the warehouses centered on living in what many considered prisonlike conditions, Najlaa officials said it was crucial to keep the men in the compound to prevent kidnappings or other dangers.
Thanks to Asher for finding this and Dear Kitty for posting it!