Baghdad Embassy Investigated for Labor Trafficking and Abuse
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Editor's note: Rumors of labor trafficking and abuse have plagued the building contractor now completing the $592 million Baghdad embassy building project, but a State Department inspector general investigation reported finding nothing untoward. Now David Phinney reveals previously unreported instances of appalling living conditions, abuse and coerced labor, making clear that the allegations against the contractor managing the embassy project remain unresolved.
In the months following September 2005, complaints began coming in to the U.S. State Department that all was not well with its most ambitious project ever: a sprawling new embassy project on the banks of the ancient Tigris River. The largest, most heavily fortified embassy in the world with over 20 buildings, it spans 104 acres-- comparable in size to the Vatican.
Soon after the State Department awarded a $592 million building contract to First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting in July 2005, thousands of low-paid migrant workers recruited from South Asia, the Philippines and other nations poured into Baghdad, beginning work to build the gargantuan complex within two years time. But sources involved in the embassy project tell Slogger that during First Kuwaiti’s rush to the finish the project by this summer on schedule, American 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 U.S.-controlled Green Zone.
The Americans protested that 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 on the banks of the Tigris, a river rife with waterborne disease, sewage and sometimes floating bodies, they said. 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. Another American said laborers told him they were been misled in 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 Sept. 15. He now reports that the complaints had no substance.
“Nothing came to our attention,” he wrote in a nine-page memorandum posted recently on the State Department's website. 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 U.S. 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 “bull shit.” Another former First Kuwaiti employee viewed it as “a whitewash.”
Meanwhile, Justice Department trial attorneys Andrew Kline and Michael J. Frank with the civil rights division have been contacting former First Kuwaiti employees and others for interviews and documents, but declined to comment on the investigation other than to say they are looking into allegations of labor trafficking.
Ticketed to Dubai, diverted to Iraq
Dozens of migrant workers from Nepal and the Philippines have previously accused First Kuwaiti of pressuring them to work in Iraq under U.S. military contracts against their wishes. Late last year several Americans also claimed they boarded separate chartered jets in Kuwait loaded with work crews holding boarding passes to Dubai, but the planes then flew directly to Baghdad. Just this week, another American reported to Slogger that he was told by workers from Ghana on the embassy site that they were led to believe they would have jobs in Dubai but were then taken to work in Iraq.
First Kuwaiti 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, the State Department has given First Kuwaiti some $200 million more in embassy work in Africa, India and Indonesia. The company is now said to be competing for a large U.S. embassy in Lebanon.
Had Krongard visited earlier than last September and unannounced, he may have witnessed something very different then what his memorandum relates. A half-dozen Americans who worked on the embassy project now say the inspector general saw nothing inappropriate, because the problems had been cleaned up in anticipation of his Sept. 15 inspection and because of complaints and inquiries from the news media.
Living 20 to a trailer
"Most of the allegations (from the Americans) were true before he arrived," claims Juvencio Lopez, who says he was a high-level project manager under the U.S. State Department over the course of two years. During a telephone interview last weekend, he said the laborers “had their backs to the wall,” and had been living 20 to a trailer. 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 says. 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 protestors 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.”
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 says.
One of First Kuwaiti’s new improvements includes the workers' medical clinic, complete with pharmacy, emergency room, x-ray machine and dental suite, all of which appeared just weeks before the inspector’s general visit, according to several witnesses. “Every month the clinic wasn’t there, they were saving money ... but it got to be an embarrassment,” Lopez says. “I was away, but when I returned in November, it was there.”
That wasn’t what former Army emergency medical technician Rory Mayberry found in March 2006. First Kuwaiti had hired Mayberry as a medic under a subcontract with MSDS, a two-person, minority-owned computer consulting company outside Washington, D.C. Recommended to First Kuwaiti by contractor Jim Golden, who oversees the embassy project for the State Department, MSDS had never before provided medical services or worked in Iraq.
Once arriving at the construction site, Mayberry says he found the most basic of medical needs missing and that clinics lacked hot water, disinfectant and hand-washing stations. Mayberry also claims that workers’ medical records in total disarray or nonexistent, beds were dirty and the support staff was poorly trained. Prescription pain killers were being handed out "like a candy store ... and then people were sent back to work,” to operate heavy equipment or climb scaffolding, he adds.
Several workers had died prior to Mayberry’s arrival, perhaps because of improper diagnosis, and he recommended an investigation. Days after reporting the problems to First Kuwaiti and the State Department, Mayberry was taken off the site and discharged.
More than six months later, the inspector general discovered the clinic clean and well-organized and with several medical staff members. “The medications were neatly arranged and appeared to be labeled in both English and Arabic. Medical staff members we interviewed said they were not aware of any medical unit visits by workers for injuries related to beatings or abuse.”
Krongard also noted that the food is “quite good” with “six different dining facilities serving Egyptian, Filipino, African, Lebanese, Pakistani and Indian cuisines to meet the different tastes of most of the workers.”
The Lebanese food was always good, sources say, because all of First Kuwaiti’s top managers are Lebanese, and they ate there along with the American managers. There was a pecking order based on nationality, race and class, Paul Chapman said. He worked nine months for a subcontractor to First Kuwaiti and is now home in South Carolina. Chapman recalls seeing workers walk a mile to stand in line where rice, stew and flatbread were served from the back of truck. Food was ladled from marmite food containers. “I’d see them eating alongside the road or near their trailers.”
But what bothered Chapman more was the disappearance of seven workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines who were listed as “missing” on First Kuwaiti rosters. 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.”
Since workers were rarely allowed outside the project area, it was a mystery how they would have found other jobs. Even more puzzling was that they may have left without passports. First Kuwaiti keeps most passports locked up in a storage room.
In October, workers from Ghana on the embassy site told Chapman that they expected to get jobs in Dubai but were then sent to Iraq. Chapman wanted to report these incidents to the inspector general but says he was discouraged from doing so.
“Every U.S. labor law was broken”
Supplementing Krongard’s review, the coalition Multi-National Force inspector general in Baghdad also 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 workers from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who 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.
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 U.S. labor law was broken,” says an American labor foreman, John Owens, who adds that he never witnessed a 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 had been a safety program and he had known how to use a safety harness,” charges Owen, who left the embassy project last June.
Still, Lopez believes that First Kuwaiti is one of the best companies he has ever worked with, adding “I wish I could bring the company here” to the United States. He talks in global terms and explains that many Americans are not accustomed to working on an international stage where workers come from impoverished countries and are eager to work under any conditions. “Just look at where the workers came from,” he says. “They were much better off in Baghdad.”
Own offers a different take on the workers he supervised. After having worked construction on U.S. embassy sites in Armenia, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon and Cambodia, nothing compares to the mess he saw in Baghdad. “I’ve never seen a project more fucked up.”
David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and on ABC and PBS. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.