Global Policy Forum

Labour Laws Trampled at New US Embassy,


By David Phinney*

Inter Press Service
October 25, 2006

Things began looking sketchier than ever to John Owen as he boarded a nondescript white jet on his way back to Iraq in March 2005 following some downtime in Kuwait City. Employed by First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting, the lead builder for the new 592-million-dollar U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Owen remembers being surrounded at the airport by about 50 company labourers freshly hired from the Philippines and India. Everyone was holding boarding passes to Dubai -- not to Baghdad.

"I thought there was some sort of mix-up and I was getting on the wrong plane," said the 48-year-old Floridian, who was working as a general construction foreman on the embassy project. He buttonholed a First Kuwaiti manager standing nearby and asked what was going on. The manager waved his hand, looked around the terminal and whispered to keep quiet. "'If anyone hears we are going to Baghdad, they won't let us on the plane,'" Owen recalled the manager saying. The secrecy struck Owen as a little odd, but he grabbed his luggage and moved on. Everyone filed out to the private jet and flew directly to Baghdad. "I figured that they had visas for Kuwait and not Iraq," Owen said in an interview.

The deception had all the appearances of smuggling workers into Iraq, but Owen didn't know at the time that the Philippines, India and other countries had banned or restricted their citizens from working in Iraq because of safety concerns and growing opposition to the war. After 2004, many passports were stamped "Not valid for Iraq".

Nor did Owen know that both the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon were quietly investigating contractors such as First Kuwaiti for labour trafficking and worker abuse. In fact, the international news media had accused First Kuwaiti repeatedly of coercing workers to take jobs in battle-torn Iraq once they had been lured to Kuwait with safer offers.

The Kuwait-headquartered, Lebanese-run company has billed several billion dollars on U.S. contracts since the war began in March 2003. Much of its work is performed by cheap labour largely hired from South Asia and the company has an estimated 7,500 foreign labourers in the theatre of war. Now, with a highly secretive contract awarded by the U.S. State Department, First Kuwaiti is in the midst of building the most expensive and heavily fortified U.S. embassy in the world. Scheduled to open in 2007, the sprawling complex near the Tigris River will equal Vatican City in size.

But Owen says that working on the project proved to be one of the worst jobs he has ever had in his 27 years of construction work. Not one of the five different U.S. embassy sites Owen had worked on around the world previously compared to the mess he describes.

Armenia, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon and Cambodia all had their share of dictators, violence and economic disruption, but the companies building the embassies were always fair and professional, he says. First Kuwaiti is the exception. Brutal and inhumane, he says "I've never seen a project more f*cked up. Every U.S. labour law was broken."

Seven months after signing on with First Kuwaiti in November 2005, he quit. In his resignation letter last June, Owen told First Kuwaiti and U.S. State Department officials that his managers physically assaulted and beat the construction workers, demonstrated little regard for worker safety, and routinely breached security.And it was all happening smack in the middle of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, he said -- right under the nose of the State Department that had quietly awarded the controversial embassy contract in July 2005.

Owen also complained of poor sanitation, squalid living conditions and medical malpractice in the labour camps where several thousand low-paid migrant workers lived. Those workers, recruited on the global labour market from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and other poor south Asian countries, earned as little as 10 to 30 dollars a day. As with many U.S.-funded contractors, First Kuwaiti prefers importing labour because it views Iraqi workers as a security headache not worth the trouble.

Despite numerous emails and phone calls about such allegations, neither First Kuwaiti general manager Wadih Al Absi nor his lawyer Angela Styles, the former top White House contract policy advisor, have responded. After a year of requests, State Department officials involved with the project also have ignored or rejected opportunities for comment. However, on Apr. 4, 2006, the Pentagon issued a new contracting directive following a secret investigation that officially confirms what many South Asian labourers have been complaining about ever since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Some contractors, many working as subcontractors to Halliburton /KBR in Iraq, were found to be using deceptive, bait-and-switch hiring practices and charging recruiting fees that indebted low-paid migrant workers for many months or even years to their employers. Contractors were also accused of providing substandard, crowded sleeping quarters, serving poor food, and circumventing Iraqi immigration procedures.

While the Pentagon declines to specifically name those contractors found to be doing business in this way, it also acknowledged in an Apr. 19 memorandum that it was a widespread practice among contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan to take away workers' passports. Holding onto employee passports -- a direct violation of U.S. labour trafficking laws -- helped stop workers from leaving war-torn Iraq or taking better jobs with other contractors.

Contractors engaging in the practice, states the memo, must immediately "cease and desist". "All passports will be returned to employees by 1 May 06. This requirement will be flowed down to each of your subcontractors performing work in this theater," it said. The Pentagon has yet to announce any penalty for those found to be in violation of U.S. labour trafficking laws or contract requirements.

About the Author: David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . This article is part one of two on allegations of forced labour and abuse of workers in the construction of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

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