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June 9, 2007

Blood, Sweat and Tears at New US Embassy


by David Phinney

The US Justice Department is actively investigating allegations of forced labor and other abuses by the Kuwaiti contractor now rushing to complete the sprawling 592-million-dollar US embassy project in Baghdad, numerous sources have revealed.

Justice Department trial attorneys Andrew Kline and Michael J. Frank with the civil rights division have been contacting former employees of First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting and other witnesses for interviews and documents, but declined to comment on the investigation other than to say they are looking into allegations of labor trafficking.

The two investigators are said to be looking for actual workers around the world who claim they were misled or pressured to work in Iraq against their will by the company.

Rumors of forced labor in Iraq have plagued First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting for several years, but US government officials have discounted such allegations by workers from Nepal and the Philippines in the past, even as the company continued to rack up contracts now totaling several billion dollars from the Pentagon and US State Department.

Late last year, several US citizens also said they boarded separate chartered jets in Kuwait loaded with work crews from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Africa holding boarding passes to Dubai, but the planes then flew directly to Baghdad.

More recently, another US citizen told IPS that he was told by workers from Ghana on the embassy site that they thought they would have jobs in Dubai but were then taken to work in Iraq.

First Kuwaiti's general manager, Wadih al Absi, flatly dismisses the accusations as unfounded and false.

"I am telling you that First Kuwaiti has never violated any visa violations or forced people to work," he said during a telephone interview last January. "In the coming months you will see that First Kuwaiti is the best company working in the Middle East."

Since landing the Baghdad project, First Kuwaiti has won additional contracts worth roughly 200 million dollars more for embassy projects in Africa, India and Indonesia. The company also is believed to be competing for another large new US embassy in Lebanon.

Soon after the State Department awarded the Iraq embassy contract to First Kuwaiti in July 2005, thousands of low-paid migrant workers recruited from South Asia, the Philippines and other nations poured into Baghdad to begin building the gargantuan new embassy within two years time. When completed later this summer, it will be the most fortified US diplomatic mission ever constructed, spanning 104 acres on the banks of the ancient Tigris River and holding more than 20 buildings. It will be comparable in size to the Vatican.

But during First Kuwaiti's frenzied rush to the finish the project on schedule, US managers and specialists involved with the project began protesting about the living and working conditions of lower-paid workers sequestered and largely unseen behind security walls bordering the embassy project inside the US-controlled Green Zone.

Among those complaints: construction crews lived in crowded quarters, ate substandard food, and had little medical care. When drinking water was scarce in the blistering heat, coolers were filled at the banks of the Tigris, a river rife with waterborne disease, sewage and sometimes floating bodies.

Others questioned why First Kuwaiti held the passports of workers. Was it to keep them from escaping? Some laborers had turned up "missing" with little investigation. One US citizen said laborers told him they had been misled about their job location. When recruited, they were unaware they were heading for war-torn Iraq.

After hearing similar allegations during much of 2006, Howard J. Krongard, the State Department's inspector general, flew to Baghdad for what he describes as a "brief" review on Sep. 15. His review was recently made public after inquires from Al-Jazeera about the embassy for an upcoming hour-long documentary, and he reported that the complaints had no substance.

"Nothing came to our attention," he wrote in a nine-page memorandum posted on the State Department's Web site. More importantly, after interviewing an unstated number of workers from the Philippines, India, Nepal and Pakistan, Krongard said no evidence was found of labor smuggling, trafficking or other abuses. Krongard makes no mention of an ongoing investigation by the US Justice Department of First Kuwaiti and others for such alleged practices and other matters.

One former labor foreman at the embassy site who recently read Krongard's review called it "bulls**t." Another former First Kuwaiti employee viewed it as "a whitewash."

Had Krongard visited earlier than last September and unannounced, he may have witnessed something very different then what his memorandum relates.

"Most of the allegations (from the US citizens) were true before he arrived," claims Juvencio Lopez, who says he was a high-level project manager under the US State Department over the course of two years.

During a telephone interview, he said that protests over First Kuwaiti's bad food, abusive treatment from managers and unsafe working conditions were routine among many of the 2,700 workers during much of 2005 and 2006.

"There were strikes and sit-downs every month," Lopez said. He left Iraq in November 2006 and is now home in San Antonio, Texas. "Sometimes there were almost riots."

Lopez vividly recalls a First Kuwaiti security guard unholstering his 9mm handgun and walking among the squatting protesters telling them to get back to work. Had the guard fallen or workers tackled him to the ground, the gun might have gone off. Lopez said he immediately reported the incident to First Kuwaiti. "Someone could gotten killed or injured," he said.

On another occasion, a company manager roughed up a Filipino worker, sources say. All of the other Filipinos nearby began loudly protesting as bewildered workers from other countries watched. "The workers were from 36 different countries and everyone spoke a different language," Lopez said.

Supplementing Krongard's review, the coalition Multi-National Force inspector general in Baghdad interviewed 36 workers from seven different countries at the new embassy site in December. The MNF-I IG claimed it found no evidence to indicate the presence of severe forms of labor trafficking, but did find that workers from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka reported deceptive hiring practices by recruitment agencies in their home countries.

They said they had been promised higher pay, shorter hours and days off. "A large majority of workers" from the Indian subcontinent incurred recruiting fees of up to one year's salary.

Paul Chapman, a subcontractor working with First Kuwaiti, said he is also struck by the lack of interest in workers that First Kuwaiti had listed as "missing" on its company rosters. Now home in South Carolina, Chapman said seven workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines "just disappeared."

Fearing they may have been killed and dumped into the Tigris, he began pressing embassy officials overseeing the project to investigate. "They told me to forget about it because the workers had probably found other jobs."

Chapman and others also claim that standard safety procedures on the project frequently went unobserved. Many worked without safety harnesses when off the ground and had no hardhats or boots. Work clothes were dirty and tattered. Those that had them had only one set of work clothes so they were rarely washed. They became dirty and tattered, causing rashes and sores.

Some worked in sandals, others in bare feet. "They had their toes curled around the rebar like birds," Lopez remembers.

"Every US labor law was broken," charged one US foreman, John Owens, who said that he never witnessed a single safety meeting. Once an Egyptian worker fell and broke his back and was sent home. No one ever heard from him again.

"The accident might not have happened if there was a safety program and he had known how to use a safety harness," said Owen, who left the embassy project last June.

(Inter Press Service)

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David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS. He writes for Inter Press Service.

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