100 Filipino Workers Repatriated From Iraq
Philippines Government Investigating Contractors for Possible Labor Trafficking
More than 100 Filipino workers voluntarily left Iraq last week after Philippine officials began an investigation of possible labor trafficking by US-funded contractors and subcontractors.
The Philippines imposed a ban on its citizens entering Iraq for work in 2004 for safety concerns although 10,000 to 20,000 Filipinos are estimated to be working in Iraq under US-funded military support and construction contracts despite the restriction.
The Filipino workers that left Iraq were repatriated to Dubai and Kuwait on August 16 and were destined to return to the Philippines, according to the Philippine news network ABS-CBN. All are believed to have been employed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a company that has reaped up to $2 billion in US contracts to build the sprawling 102-acre embassy in the Green Zone and provide services to more than a dozen US military camps.
A US Congressional hearing in July focusing on the contractor building the $592-million US embassy in Baghdad sparked the labor probe in the Philippines after witnesses testified that low-paid migrant workers in Kuwait were given boarding passes for Dubai and then flown directly to Baghdad. American Rory Mayberry testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that several Filipino workers were "forcibly taken" to Baghdad to construct the US embassy in Baghdad.
A second witness, former embassy construction manager John Owens, said he also boarded a separate plane in 2006 when workers were handed Dubai boarding passes and then flown to Baghdad. He also reported foreign workers were packed in trailers, lacked shoes and gloves, and were required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week on the embassy project.
“Conditions there were deplorable, beyond what even a working man should tolerate," Owens said in his testimony.
Although no First Kuwaiti representative appeared at the Congressional oversight hearing, a written statement from the company denied the allegations that workers had been smuggled or forced to work in Iraq. The company also ran advertisements August 12 in five leading Kuwait newspapers that publicly rejected any wrongdoing.
“The workers willingly agreed to work in Iraq before their departure and before they arrived at the site of the embassy,” the firm said.
Since then, First Kuwaiti has admitted to Philippine officials that it sent a total of 867 Filipino workers to Iraq despite the existing ban. However, the company continues to deny that any workers were tricked about their final destination, according to The Manila Mail. In addition to working at the embassy project, those Philippine workers are employed at numerous US military camps in Iraq.
High-level Philippines officials, including Special Envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu, Ambassador to Kuwait Ricardo Endaya and Charge d'Affairs to Iraq Wilfredo Cuyugan, were able to convince the 100 repatriated Filipinos to return to the Philippines. ABS-CBN reports that some Filipinos working on the US embassy project refused to leave because of their need for work.
Endaya told ABS-CBN that First Kuwaiti had sent several Filipino workers to work in Baghdad under the pretense that they were going to Kuwait in addition to illegally employing others.
“At least 867 Filipino workers have been recruited (by FKTC) and are now working in big projects in 17 worksites all over Iraq despite the government’s deployment ban,” Endaya said.
The Philippine Department of Labor and Employment has also suspended the operating licenses of two recruitment agencies involved in the illegal deployment of Filipino workers to Iraq. The agencies are GFI Manpower International Specialists Inc. and Great Provider Services Exporters Inc.
The Philippine investigators said they are now planning to meet with US officials about the situation.
“Hopefully we will be able to finish our mission at the earliest possible time... and institute some corrective measures on our policy and our procedures to implement the deployment ban to Iraq," Cimatu said. Cimatu was also scheduled to talk to officials of Kuwait-based First Kuwaiti, the firm allegedly involved in forcibly taking Filipinos to Iraq.
Endaya told ABS-CBN earlier last week that complaints of exploitation of Filipino workers in Iraq were not new to him and that he had asked that the Philippines blacklist First Kuwaiti in 2004 because of its employment practices. Instead, the government placed the company on a “watch list.”
Mayberry told Congress in July that 51 Filipinos on his flight to Baghdad in March 2006 were issued tickets to Dubai and believed they were going to work in the United Arab Emirates. Since then, the Philippine investigation has been operating on information from First Kuwaiti that only 11 workers on Mayberry’s flight were Filipinos while the rest were of other nationalities. Of the 11, six had already returned to the Philippines while five are still working in Iraq.
Roy Cimatu, the Philippines' special envoy to the Middle East, told ABS-CBN television that he had just visited Iraq, where he confirmed that only 11 Filipinos were on the flight in question.
"We were able to interview the Filipinos who were on the plane," he said from Dubai. "All of them were unanimous that they knew they were going to Iraq, that it's voluntary on their part."
Cimatu said four of the 11 Filipinos still work for First Kuwaiti, four have moved to different companies in Iraq, while three others have returned to the Philippines.
Mayberry told Iraqslogger that he continues to stick by his original account that he traveled with 51 Filipino workers and questions whether or not the investigators are aware that First Kuwaiti uses a number of different planes to transport its laborers into Iraq. Mayberry, who lives in Oregon, also said that he has never been contacted by the Philippine government.
David Phinney is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.