Despite US measures designed to halt labor abuses perpetrated by contractors working on US-funded projects in Iraq, anecdotal evidence indicates serious problems persist.
American civilian sources working at military camps report low-wage contracted laborers having limited access to medical care, crowded and decrepit living quarters, and questionable food. Some were reportedly tricked into working in Iraq, and accounts of contractors holding employees' passports continue, despite an April 2006 order from the US military specifically barring the practices.
“These issues are commonly known and there has been nothing done about this,” said one American contractor in a string of emails earlier this month from Camp Diamondback. He said he had been speaking with Sri Lankans who were recruited with the understanding they would be working in Kuwait.
According to the contractor, they were informed they would be going to Iraq after arriving in Dubai during transit. “The two men I speak with most often arrived in Mosul in late March,” wrote the contractor. “They were to make 2 to 3 times their normal salary. Thus far, they've not been paid and have only received an advance of $50.”
The contractor also sent photos of bathrooms, reporting that the only running water was on the floor. Old toilets are discarded outside the workers' living quarters, he said, where they sleep ten to a room on thin mattresses.
One worker suffering from diarrhea and vomiting was reportedly told the condition couldn’t be too severe since the employee had worked all day before reporting it. The doctor told the worker to “deal with it or go back” to Sri Lanka. “I asked one if he had any paperwork and he had none,” the contractor said.
Describing a photograph of the typical meal of mostly rice with a side of slop served to low-wage contract workers, the contractor commented: “This picture is of their food today. This is apparently a good day (with) double the usual meat portions.... The days are hit-and-miss whether they get vegetables.”
Another American contractor familiar with working conditions prior to the 2006 contractor order said in an email last week that “the treatment is still pretty much the same” at a large camp outside Baghdad. He said that 6,000 workers have no dentist and must travel to Kuwait for treatment.
“I know all of this because I had a laborer with bad pain in two teeth last week and the medic was giving him ‘tablets’ which were totally ineffective in alleviating this poor guy's pain. They are given the option of taking off work and flying to Kuwait for treatment at their own expense.”The contractor said that “incoming laborers are still paying agency fees, and though they now carry their passports and a copy of their contract, all that did was create an additional task for us with no improvement.”
Even having passports returned can be a problem, said one Pakistani worker near Fallujah during a telephone conversation several weeks ago. He complained that while passports had been returned, the front pages had been ripped out.
But having part of a passport may be better than none at all. An American contractor at Camp Stryker said in an email last March that dozens of Indian workers found employment conditions with a Saudi subcontractor so bad that:
"They are running away at night from their camps here at Stryker and jumping the wire.... I am concerned for them because they are running and have no where to go..... The embassy is in the Green zone ten miles away.... and you have to go in the red zone to get to there from here."
The source said that Americans brought the Indian laborers back to the camp and that none of the low-paid workers had identification or passports. A manager with the Saudi contractors had taken the documents away before they fled the camp, the source was told. The Indian workers said they were quitting their jobs because they were being beaten. One reported he had been handcuffed to a post for hours.
Each of these anecdotes come from single sources, but the accounts of labor conditions closely track common complaints previously reported.
The Saudi contractor did not reply to email inquiries or phone calls requesting an interview. The US Army referred the inquiry to a spokesperson at KBR, which holds the prime contract with the Army for maintenance and dining at Camp Stryker. The spokesperson said the incident was untrue:
KBR has determined the information you have to be incorrect and does not involve KBR or its subcontractor. However, we can assure you that KBR does not condone and will not tolerate any practice that unlawfully compels subcontractor employees to deploy, perform work or remain in a place against their will.
The KBR spokesperson did not respond to a request for a contact with the Saudi subcontractor.
David Phinney is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com.