Cheap labor flows to Iraq
Halliburton unit is tapping pipeline of illicit workers for U.S. military jobs in war zone

First published: Sunday, October 16, 2005

American tax dollars and the wartime needs of the U.S. military are fueling an illicit pipeline of cheap foreign labor, mainly impoverished Asians who are often deceived, exploited and put in harm's way in Iraq with little protection.

The United States has long condemned the practices that characterize this human trade as it operates elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet this very system is now part of the privatization of the American war effort and is central to the operations of Halliburton subsidiary KBR, the U.S. military's biggest private contractor in Iraq.

To document this system, the Chicago Tribune retraced the journey of 12 Nepalese men kidnapped last year from an unprotected convoy en route to an American military base in Iraq. The Tribune's reporting found that:

To maintain the flow of low-paid workers key to military support and reconstruction in Iraq, the U.S. military has allowed KBR to partner with subcontractors that hire laborers from Nepal and other countries that prohibit citizens from being deployed in Iraq. That means brokers recruiting such workers operate illicitly.

The U.S. military and KBR assume no responsibility for the recruitment, transportation or protection of foreign workers brought to the country. KBR leaves every aspect of hiring and deployment in the hands of its subcontractors. Those subcontractors often turn to job brokers dealing in menial laborers.

Working in tandem with counterparts in the Middle East, the brokers in South and Southeast Asia recruit workers from some of the world's most remote areas. They lure laborers to Iraq with false promises of lucrative, safe jobs in nations such as Jordan and Kuwait, even falsifying documents to complete the deception.

Even after foreign workers discover they have been lured under false pretenses, many say they have little choice but to continue into Iraq or stay longer than planned. They feel trapped because they must repay brokers' huge fees.

Some U.S. subcontractors in Iraq -- and the brokers feeding them -- employ practices condemned by the U.S. elsewhere, including fraud, coercion and seizure of workers' passports.

The State Department has long expressed concerns about the treatment of foreign workers in the same Middle Eastern nations the United States relies on to supply labor for bases in Iraq. In June, the department added four of these nations -- Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- to the top tier of its human trafficking watch list for not undertaking "significant efforts to combat forced labor trafficking."

U.S. law calls for sanctions in such cases. But last month, citing Kuwait's and Saudi Arabia's efforts in the "global war on terror," President Bush waived the sanctions against them. This allowed more than $6 billion in combined military sales to go forward. One reason laborers from developing countries are sought for work in Iraq is the U.S. military fears that hiring Iraqis would allow insurgents to infiltrate its bases.

Halliburton would not say whether it includes such laborers in its public tallies of contractor casualties in Iraq. But figures compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private group, indicate that third-country nationals -- neither Iraqis nor citizens from U.S. coalition members -- account for more than 100 of the roughly 270 contractor fatalities in the country since the start of the war. Those numbers are based on the group's tracking of Defense Department releases and media accounts.
Halliburton declined to make KBR executives available for an interview, agreeing to respond only to written questions from the Tribune. In a written statement, Halliburton said it outlines the "legal and ethical behaviors that all employees and subcontractors are expected to follow in every aspect of their work."

The U.S. military has outsourced vital support operations in Iraq to KBR at an unprecedented scale, a deal that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $12 billion. KBR, in turn, outsources much of that work to more than 200 subcontractors, many of them based in the Middle East.

The subcontractors employ an army of workers from developing countries to dish out food, wash clothes and clean latrines. About 35,000 of the 48,000 people working for those subcontractors are not Americans, KBR has said.

According to salary statements obtained by the Tribune, the pay for such workers can range from about $65 to $112 weekly -- a fortune to those scratching a living from the farm fields and brick factories of Nepal, where the per capita annual income is about $270.

The Nepalese government must grant permission before workers can legally go abroad or brokers can legally send them. It has refused to do so for Iraq, because of the dangers there.

Some Nepalese job brokers have been raided or shut down, but it is unclear how vigorously authorities have pursued those involved. The government, consistently ranked among the world's most corrupt, has little incentive to do so because the Nepalese economy is reliant on the estimated $1 billion sent home each year by citizens working overseas.

Many Nepalis willingly assume the risks of working in Iraq, although their knowledge of its dangers before leaving home is questionable. Only 16 of every 1,000 Nepalis even had a phone line when the war broke out in 2003.

Asked what it was doing to stop the flow of workers from these nations or to monitor its subcontractors, KBR said questions "regarding the recruitment practices of subcontractors should be directed to the subcontractor."

The U.S. Army, which oversees the contract, said much the same. "Questions involving alleged misconduct toward employees by subcontractor firms should be addressed to those firms, as these are not Army issues."

An estimated 10,000 Nepal citizens are now in Iraq despite policies restricting such work.