Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Filipino workers in Iraq deceived, abused - report

Filipino workers in Iraq deceived, abused - report
07/27/2007 | 05:58 PM

Filipino workers promised jobs in Dubai hotels were deceptively recruited and trafficked to Iraq for a massive US Embassy construction project in Baghdad, two former American civilian contractors of a Kuwaiti company testified at the US Congress on Thursday.

The foreign workers, including Filipinos, experienced physical abuse and substandard working conditions, said John Owens, an American citizen who worked for First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co. as a construction foreman for six months.

The Kuwaiti firm was awarded the $592-million contract for the construction of the US Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. This was said to be the largest US diplomatic mission in the world.

“Conditions there were deplorable, beyond what even a working man should tolerate," Owens said in his testimony before the House committee on oversight and government reform on allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in the construction project.

“Foreign workers were packed in trailers tight. There was insufficient equipment and basic needs – stuff like shoes and gloves. If a construction worker needed a new pair of shoes, he was told, ‘No, do with what you have’ by First Kuwaiti managers," Owens said based on a transcript of the congressional proceedings.

“The contract for these workers said they had to work 12 hours a day 7 days a week, with some time off on Friday for prayers," he said.

Rory J. Malberry, also an American who worked as emergency medical technician at the embassy site under a subcontract, said First Kuwaiti managers asked him to escort 51 Filipinos through the Kuwait airport and onto a flight to Baghdad.

“I was given my flight information to Baghdad. At this time, First Kuwaiti managers asked me to escort 51 Filipino nationals to the Kuwaiti airport and make sure they got on the same flight that I was taking to Baghdad. Many of these Filipinos did not speak any English," he told US congressmen.

"I wanted to help them make sure they got on their flight OK, just as my managers had asked. We were all employees of the same company after all. But when we got to the Kuwait airport, I noticed that all of our tickets said we were going to Dubai. I asked why? The Kuwaiti manager told me that because Filipino passports do not allow Filipinos to fly to Iraq, they must be marked as going to Dubai," Malberry said.

Washington Post reported on Friday that US State Department officials disputed the testimonies of Owens and Malberry.

It quoted Howard J. Krongard, the State Department’s inspector general in charge of investigating the project, saying that he conducted a “limited review" on the conditions of foreign laborers at the construction site in Baghdad and did not find reasons to substantiate the claims.

The inspector general of the US-led military force in Iraq also conducted inquiries, he said.

“Nothing came to our attention that caused us to believe that trafficking-in-persons violations or other serious abuses occurred at the construction workers’ camp at the new embassy compound," Krongard told the committee.

The Filipinos worked at the embassy construction site with laborers from India, Pakistan and Sierra Leone.

Malberry said he had read Krongard’s report. “It's not worth the paper it's printed on. This is a cover-up. I'm glad that I have this opportunity to set the record straight," he told the committee.

Malberry said the workers were told they would be working in hotels in Dubai, not in Baghdad.
According to him, the First Kuwaiti managers even instructed him specifically not to tell the Filipinos they were being taken to Baghdad.

“As I found out later, these men thought they had signed up to work in Dubai hotels. One fellow I met told me in broken English that he was excited to start his new job as a telephone repair man. They had no idea they were being sent to do construction work on the US embassy," Malberry said.

"Mr. Chairman, when the airplane took off and the captain announced that we were headed for Baghdad, all you-know-what broke lose on that airplane. People started shouting. It wasn't until a security guy working for First Kuwaiti waved an MP-5 in the air that people settled down," he said, addressing Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the oversight committee.

"They realized they had no other choice but to go to Baghdad," he said. “Let me spell it out clearly. I believe these men were kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work on the US Embassy," Malberry said.

According to the Washington Post report, the US Department of Justice is also investigating First Kuwaiti’s labor practices, particularly the allegations that foreign workers were brought into Iraq under false pretenses and were unable to leave because the company had confiscated their passports.

The Kuwaiti firm was awarded the contract because no US company met the terms for the construction project, the committee was told. Company officials declined the congressional panel’s invitation to testify.

The report also said foreign workers came from countries in South Asia and the Philippines because of the difficulty of hiring Iraqis to work inside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

In the transcript of Thursday’s proceedings, Malberry testified that he “witnessed" the trafficking of the Filipinos.

“When flying from Kuwait to Baghdad, I saw a bunch of workers with tickets to Dubai. Mine was the only one that’s for Baghdad. When I asked the First Kuwaiti manager, he said, ‘Shhh, don’t say anything. If the Kuwaiti customs knows they’re going to Iraq, they won’t let them on the plane’," Malberry said.

When the plane landed on Baghdad, the workers were then taken away in buses to the construction site.

Malberry said First Kuwaiti assigned him as “security liaison, among other tasks" at the construction site although he claimed to have “more experience with building
embassies than anybody else on that site."

“I think the American people might understand what was going through my head over there as I watched this abusive and unprofessional practice taking place. I kept thinking it would get better. I kept telling myself that it would get better, and after more time had passed and things didn't get any better, I felt so bad all the time and I realized it was time to resign and speak up for those who do not have a voice," he said.

Waxman, a Democrat congressman from California, remarked: "It does not help matters that there are only three career State Department officials on site to oversee this massive project. Everyone else is a private contractor." - GMANews.TV