Slavery in Iraq
By Ron Soodalter | April 6, 2009
It is important to look at the federal government's actions—both positive and negative—in its relatively new war against human trafficking in America. Many federal officials have taken on the task of rooting out and prosecuting traffickers, as well as coordinating with service providers and victim advocates providing care for survivors. We'll speak with representatives of some of the federal agencies whose job description has been expanded to include modern day slavery, and get a sense of how they feel the campaign is going. We'll also examine some cases that seem to stand in direct contradiction to the anti-trafficking position taken by the government—cases in which administration politics and inaction have actually increased human trafficking on American soil—both here and abroad. One of the worst of these cases involves tax-payer money supporting slavery as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Bringing democracy to Iraq—on the backs of slaves
First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Co., a billion-dollar construction company, was hired to build the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—after no American company would agree to the government's terms. The project is worth $592 million to First Kuwaiti, and encompasses a 104-acre, 21-building complex, making it the largest U.S. embassy in the world. When completed, it will be six times larger than the United Nations, and the same size as Vatican City. From the beginning First Kuwaiti had difficulty in fulfilling the terms of its contract. Serious problems piled up: faulty wiring, fuel leaks, and poor construction. Some of the problems were determined to be "life safety issues." And while the day-to-day fire fight was going on in Baghdad, a war of words was being waged between the State Department in Washington, who defended their contractors, and those on the ground in Iraq, who were suffering from substandard work, and delays.
Boondoggles, pork barrels, and shoddy work are scandalous, but it was another, uglier issue that brought First Kuwaiti to the world's attention. Some of their contract workers had been trafficked to Iraq against their will, held by force, and paid little or nothing. First Kuwaiti—and by association, the U.S. Department of State—were using slave labor to build the embassy. Taxpayers were footing the bill. The idea of a U.S. subcontractor trafficking enslaved workers into the country where we are waging a war to introduce freedom and democracy, is unthinkable. And yet, in case after case, the construction company hired workers, normally through sub-contractors, from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Turkey, and the Philippines under false pretenses. Falsely promised work in Dubai, they were landed in a combat zone. Once in Iraq contractors confiscated the workers' passports, forced them to live in squalid conditions, and to work long hours for little or no pay. And, says journalist David Phinney, "It was all happening smack in the middle of the US-controlled Green Zone—right under the nose of the State Department…"
The issue came to light after the murder of 12 Nepali workers who had been "recruited under false pretenses from rural villages…before being trafficked illegally into Iraq." En route to a U.S. base in Iraq, all twelve were kidnapped and executed by insurgents. The subcontractor had "sent them into the war zone, and along one of the most dangerous roads in the world, in what basically amounted to taxi cabs." Ali Kamel al-Nadi, the man who allegedly assembled the unprotected caravan, commented when asked about the incident, "If they were my workers, maybe I should be compensated for losing them."
Despite the fact that foreign workers had been complaining of abuses since early 2003, the problem was first flagged in a news report in late 2005. The report provoked a flurry of base inspections by the government. In April 2006, the Pentagon, without naming any of the subcontractors to Halliburton/KBR, concluded that "doing business in this way" was common in Iraq and Afghanistan. The confiscation of workers' passports kept the laborers from leaving Iraq, the report stated, or from seeking jobs with other contractors. No penalties were assigned to the contractors. Nonetheless, the Pentagon ordered that all passports be returned, and that such practices "cease and desist" immediately.
They didn't. In July 2007, two American civilian contractors who had worked on the embassy testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by California congressman Henry A. Waxman. One of the two, native Floridian John Owens, had worked for 27 years building U.S. embassies around the world, sometimes in areas troubled by violence and corruption. But after working for seven months as a foreman in Iraq, he quit. "I've never seen a project more fucked up. Every U.S. labor law was broken," he said. Owens testified that the workers' living and working conditions were "deplorable," and described how they were "verbally and physically abused," forced to live in cramped trailers, denied basic needs like shoes and gloves, made to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, with time off only for prayer, and "had their salaries docked for petty infractions."
The second contractor to testify was Rory J. Mayberry. He told the committee that First Kuwaiti managers had asked him to escort 51 Filipino workers onto a flight to Baghdad. The plane, Mayberry recalled, was an unmarked 52-seater—"an antique piece of shit." Mayberry noted with surprise that "all of our tickets said we were going to Dubai," whereupon a First Kuwaiti manager told him not to let any of the laborers know they were going to Iraq. John Owens recalled the same experience when he saw the workers' boarding passes: "I thought there was some sort of mix up and I was getting on the wrong plane." In Mayberry's words, the workers were "kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work on the U.S. Embassy." After their passports were taken in Baghdad, they were "smuggled into the Green Zone."
Mayberry, an emergency medical technician, was horrified at the number of injuries and ailments among the 2,500 or so foreign laborers. Infected, unattended, sores and un-bandaged wounds were common. There was a lack of disinfectant, hot water, any form of hygiene. Prescription pain killers, he testified, "were being handed out like a candy store…and then people were sent back to work... I told First Kuwaiti that you don't give painkillers to people who are running machinery and working on heavy construction and they said, 'that's how we do it.'" After he requested an investigation into the deaths of two laborers as a result of what he believes could have been "medical homicide," Mayberry was fired.
Owens confirmed the inhumane treatment. He testified that health and safety measures were non-existent, and that serious injuries took place as a result. When he advised workers to seek medical help for their injuries and illnesses, he was accused by the firm's managers of "spoiling the workers and allowing them to simply skip work." At one point, 17 laborers tried to escape by climbing over the wall; they were recaptured—with the help of a State Department official—and put in "virtual lockdown."
First Kuwaiti responded in writing that the charges were "ludicrous." State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard disputed the charges in a follow-up hearing, stating that his "limited review" and two visits to Baghdad had failed to verify the claims: "Nothing came to our attention that caused us to believe that trafficking-in-persons violations"—or any other serious abuses—"occurred at the construction workers' camp at the new embassy compound." In a written submission the anti-slavery organization Free the Slaves pointed to serious flaws in Krongard's report. They noted that the State Department's own Trafficking in Persons Report for 2007 revealed "a structure conducive to trafficking in persons" throughout much of the Middle East. This includes sponsorship laws that give employers control over workers' ability to leave the work site, their job or the country. The TIP report observed "employers commonly do not provide workers with documents legitimizing their employment in the country … and refuse to sign exit permits allowing victims to leave the country, effectively holding the worker hostage."
Most damning, the Free the Slaves submission showed that while Krongard had gone to investigate a charge of human trafficking, he failed "to recognize the significance of, and appropriately characterize as warning signs: … the contractor's practice of holding employee passports; terms of employment that raise concerns about exploitation, including the amount of payment relative to national standards, payment by the month rather than the day or hour, and a 14 day workweek, with no days off; the requirement to prepay recruitment, travel or other fees before obtaining control of earnings; and the fact that most workers interviewed either originated in countries whose laws prohibit work in Iraq, because of the strong possibility of abuse, and/or whose countries are identified by State's TIP report as having a significant number of victims of severe trafficking to the Middle East."
For his part, Chairman Waxman was also dissatisfied with Krongard's methodology and conclusions. The inspector general, said Waxman, "had followed highly irregular procedures in exonerating the prime contractor, First Kuwaiti Trading Company, of charges of labor trafficking." On September 18, 2007, Waxman began an inquiry into accusations that Krongard had repeatedly hindered fraud and abuse investigations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The allegations were supported by information from several of Krongard's current and former employees, some of whom sought whistleblower status to protect them from punishment for malfeasance. Congressman Waxman stated to Krongard, "One consistent element in these allegations is that you believe your foremost mission is to support the Bush administration, especially with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than act as an independent and objective check on waste, fraud and abuse on behalf of U.S. taxpayers."
This article is an excerpt from chapter 9 of the author's book, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.
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