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
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
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
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)