Pentagon's invisible army of low-wage laborers from Asia
face brutal conditions and coerced labor:
This story a similar award-winning
series in The Chicago Tribune and contributed to Pentagon's
demand for better treatment of workers in Iraq. CorpWatch,
Alternet, Inter Press Service, Asia Times, Counterpunch and
others (October 2005).
By DAVID PHINNEY
Jing Soliman left
his family half way around the world in the Philippines for
what sounded like a sure thing – a job as a warehouse
worker at Camp Anaconda in Iraq. He would be working for
Prime Projects International of Dubai, a major, but
low-profile, subcontractor to Halliburton's multi-billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon to provide
support services to U.S. forces.
wouldn’t be making anything near the salaries starting at
$80,000 a year and often topping more than $100,000 paid to
truck drivers, construction workers, office workers and
other laborers recruited in the United States by
Halliburton's subsidiary, KBR. Instead, the 35-year-old father of two
looked forward to earning $615 a month – including
overtime. For a 40-hour work week, that’s just over $3 an
hour, but Soliman made even less. He says the standard work
week was 12-hour days, seven days a week, so he was actually
earning $1.56 an hour.
For a year’s
work, Soliman would receive $7,380. He planned to send most
of his paychecks home to his family, where the combined
unemployment rate tops 28 percent and the average annual
income in Manila is $4,384. Nearly half
of the nation's 84 million people live on less than $2 a
day, according to the World Bank.
“I am an ordinary
man.,” said Soliman, who never finished college, during a
recent telephone interview from his home in Quezon City near
Manila. “It was good money.”
Tens of thousands
of migrant workers like Soliman, called “third country
nationals” in contractor’s parlance, or TCNs, travel
from around the world for jobs with companies working under
KBR and other major U.S.-funded contractors for work in
Largely recruited from impoverished south Asian countries such as the
Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and
Pakistan, these laborers earn monthly salaries between $200
and $1,000. They work as truck drivers, construction
workers, carpenters, warehousemen, laundry workers, cooks,
accountants, beauticians and similar blue-collar jobs for
the U.S. military.
Low-Paid and Indispensable Army of Workers
invisible, but indispensable army of low-paid workers has
helped set new records for the largest civilian workforce
ever hired in support of a U.S. war. They may be the most
significant factor to the Pentagon’s argument that
privatizing military support services is far more
cost-efficient for the U.S. taxpayer than using its own
troops to maintain camps and feed its ranks.
contractors returning home frequently share horrible tales
of the working and living conditions that these TCNs endure
on a daily basis.
sleep in crowded trailers, wait outside in line in 100
degree heat to eat “slop,” lack adequate medical care
and work almost every waking hour seven days a week for
little or no overtime pay. Frequently, the workers lack
proper safety equipment for hard labor
And when insurgents
fire incoming mortars and rockets at the sprawling military
camps, American contractors slip on helmets and bulletproof
vests, but TCNs are frequently shielded by only the shirts
on their backs and the flimsy trailers they sleep in.
Adding to these
hardships, some TCNs complain publicly about not being paid
according to their contracts and they also accuse their
employers of “bait-and-switch” recruitment tactics where
they are falsely recruited for jobs in the Middle East and
then pressured to work in Iraq. Once in Iraq, their
passports are held to prevent them from escaping. All of
these problems have resulted in labor disputes, including
labor strikes and work stoppages at US military camps.
“They do all the
grunt jobs,” said Steve Powell, 54, of the rural town of
Azle, Texas, a former KBR supervisor from the United States.
“But a lot of them are top notch.”
Trail of Contract Labor
TCNs are employed
through complex layers of companies working in Iraq. At the
top of the pyramid-shaped system is the U.S. government,
which has assigned over $24 billion in contracts over the
last two years.
Just below that
layer are the prime contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel. Below them are dozens of smaller subcontracting
companies-- largely based in the Middle East -- including
Prime Projects International, First Kuwaiti Trading &
Contracting and Alargan Trading of Kuwait, Gulf Catering,
Saudi Trading & Construction Company of Saudi Arabia.
All recruit and employ the thousands of the foreign laborers
for work in Iraq and all have experienced explosive growth
since the invasion of Iraq by providing labor and services
to the more high-profile prime contractors.
This layered system not only cuts costs for the prime
contractors, but also creates an untraceable trail of
contracts that clouds the liability of companies and hinders
comprehensive oversight by U.S. contract auditors. In April,
the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm
of the U.S. Congress concluded that it is impossible to
accurately estimate the total number of U.S. or foreign
nationals working in Iraq.
The GAO's investigation was prompted by concerns in Congress
about insurance costs that all U.S.-funded contractors and
subcontractors in are obligated by law to carry for their
workers--costs which are then passed on to the government.
"It is difficult to aggregate reliable data,” said
the GAO report, “due in part to the large number of
contractors and the multiple levels of subcontractors
performing work in Iraq."
While the exact
number of TCNs working in Iraq is uncertain, a rough
estimate can be gleaned from Halliburton's own numbers, which indicate that TCNs make up 35,000 of
KBR’s 48,000 workers in Iraq employed under sweeping
contract for military support. Known as the Logistics
Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), this contract – by
far the largest in Iraq -- is now approaching the $15
billion mark. Citing security concerns, however, the
Houston-headquartered company and several other major
contractors declined to release detailed figures on the
workforce that is estimated to be 100,000 or more.
returned home from at Camp Diamondback in May this year,
says he was disillusioned with the high staff turnover of
KBR employees and the treatment of TCNs working as his
mechanics who were provided by a KBR subcontractor from
the supervisors and most of them basically sit back and tell
the TCNs what to do – it was an attitude thing,” claims
Powell, who drove trucks for 30 years before working as a
KBR truck maintenance foreman in Iraq for a year and earning
$6,000 to $8,000 a month while the Filipinos he supervised
were making between $600 to $1,200 a month. “We weren’t
supposed to get our hands dirty.”
The TCNs not only
do much of the dirty work, but, like others working for the
U.S. military, they risk and sometimes lose their lives.
Many are killed in
mortar attacks; some are shot. Others have been taken
hostage before meeting their death. In particularly gruesome
set of murders on August 30, 2004, the captors of 12
Nepalese cooks and cleaners working for a Jordanian
construction company beheaded one worker and posted a video
of the execution on the internet with the message: "We
have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalese who
came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve
the Jews and the Christians . . . believing in Buddha as
The murders led Kathmandu to bar its citizens from working
in Iraq, although companies doing business there continue to
employ Nepalese workers.
The Pentagon keeps no comprehensive record of TCN
casualties. But the Georgia-based nonprofit, Iraq
Coalition Casualty Count, estimates that TCNs make up
more than 100 of the estimated 269 civilian fatalities. The
number of unreported fatalities could be much higher, while
unreported and life-altering injuries are legion.
Soliman was one TCN who barely escaped death on the night of
May 11, 2004, when his living trailer at Camp Anaconda was
blown apart by a bomb attack. Sardonically dubbed “Mortaritaville,”
the camp sits 42 miles north of Baghdad. Some 17,000 US
soldiers and thousands of contractors have dug into the
former Iraqi airbase for a long-term occupation.
Three others were injured along with Soliman that night. One
roommate, 25-year-old fuel pump attendant Raymund Natividad,
was killed. Soliman flew home to the Philippines in a
wheelchair days later because he wanted medical treatment in
his own country. But even after surgery and skin grafts, he
sometimes feels nagging pain in his leg, he says. Doctors
tell Soliman he will walk with a piece of shrapnel lodged in
his left leg for the rest of his life.
“It was too deep” to remove, he explains.
The attack ignited shock waves of fear among the 1,300
Filipino workers at Camp Anaconda. Some 600 PPI employees
immediately quit over safety concerns. “Filipinos don't
want to work anymore in the mess halls, laundry and fuel
depot,” a Filipino embassy official in Baghdad said at the
time. “There's a paralysis of work.”
By mid-July, 2004, the Philippines would resign from the
"Coalition of the Willing" and withdraw its modest
military presence of 43 soldiers and eight policemen from
Iraq one month earlier than scheduled. The precipitating
event was a threat by Iraqi militias to behead Filipino
hostage Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old truck driver for
the Saudi Arabian Trading and Construction Company. One day
after the withdrawal, his captors released the father of
eight. He returned home to the storm of media attention
hailing his safe return and offers of a free home and
scholarships for the children.
Only fleeting headlines in Manila greeted Soliman’s
homecoming just months earlier. Now jobless, he speaks
fondly of the U.S. troops to whom, he says, he was forbidden
to speak to by his company supervisors at PPI.
"The Army treated us like friends," he said,
boasting of a certificate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
awarded him in recognition of his service as a warehouse
worker who handled and received food supplies for the camp.
His memories of PPI are less congenial. His managers were
foul-mouthed and verbally abusive and lunches served on the
job sites were unfit to eat, Soliman said. PPI restricted
employees to two 5-minute phone calls home a month and
deducted the cost from their paychecks.
"They were $10 more expensive than at the PX (the
retail store on the military base), but if they see you
making a call at another location, they would send you
home," Salomon said.
A number of former KBR supervisors say they don’t know why
TCNs continue working in Iraq when they face much more
brutal working conditions and hours than what their American
and European co-workers would tolerate.
“TCNs had a lot of problems with overtime and things,”
recalls Sharon Reynolds of Kirbyville, Texas. “I remember
one time that they didn’t get paid for four months.”
The former KBR administrator, who spent 11 months in Iraq
until April, says she was responsible for processing time
sheets for 665 TCNs employed by PPI at Camp Victory near
Baghdad. The 14,000 troops and the American contractors
based at this former palace for Saddam Hussein have use of
an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a manmade lake preserved
for special events and fishing.
But TCNs have to make do with far less . “They don’t get
sick pay and if PPI had insurance, they sure didn’t talk
about it much,” Reynolds recalls. “TCNs had a lot of
problems with overtime and things. ...I had to go to bat for
them to get shoes and proper clothing,"
As for living conditions, TCNs “ate outside in 140 degree
heat,” she says. American contractors and U.S. troops ate
at the air-conditioned Pegasus Dining Facility featuring a
short-order grill, salad, pizza, sandwich and ice cream bars
under the KBR logistics contract.
“TCNs had to stand in line with plates and were served
something like be curry and fish heads from big old pots,”
Reynolds says incredulously. “It looked like a
And even when it came to basic safety, the TCNs faced a
double standard. "They didn’t have personal
protection equipment to wear when there was an alert,"
Reynolds said. "Here we are walking around with helmets
and vests because of an alert and they are just looking at
us wondering what’s going on.”
PPI in Dubai has failed to respond to numerous phone calls
about the accusations of mistreatment. “I don’t think
anyone will want to comment.” said a representative who
answered the phone and decline to provide phone numbers or
e-mail addresses of company executives.
There is little public information about PPI, but other
contractors say the company’s leading officers boast of a
close association with Halliburton and say that it was formed by staff who previously worked
with local firms sponsoring Halliburton's business activities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Several
sources say PPI was active as a major Halliburton subcontractor in Bosnia and at the high-security prison at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Halliburton spokesperson Melissa Norcross denied that the company has
ownership or investment ties with PPI. The Halliburton unit is proud of its employees and subcontractors “who
daily face danger to support the troops serving in Iraq and
the Middle East,” said Norcross, adding that Halliburton requires all subcontractors to provide acceptable living and
working conditions for its workers.
“KBR operates under a rigorous code of ethics that
describes not only its standards of integrity, but its
commitment to treat all of its employees and subcontractors
with dignity and respect,” Norcross wrote in an e-mail.
The company “is aware of past disagreements between
subcontractors and their employees, and KBR has interjected
itself into the situation as appropriate and worked with the
subcontractors to address these concerns.”
Norcross did not offer details of past problems involving
working conditions for TCNs, nor did KBR’s project manager
for Iraq and Kuwait, Remo Butler, when contacted by e-mail.
But if allegations of wrongdoing or contract violations are
found, Norcross said, Halliburton would address them, and “would also report any wrongdoings
to the appropriate authorities, including our customer, the
The military, however, is apparently either unaware of the
conditions or has simply chosen not acknowledge them.
Margaret A. Browne, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Field
Support Command which manages KBR's LOGCAP contract,
confirmed that the company is expected to fulfill health,
security and life support requirements for subcontractors in
the LOGCAP agreement.
These are “serious issues and we are presently
investigating the specific incidents you've addressed,”
she said referring to problems outlined by former KBR
supervisors and TCN workers. “We are concerned about
employment conditions for all employees,” Browne said in
an e-mail, adding that KBR is expected to fulfill a number
of requirements outlining the health, security and life
support requirements for subcontractors under the LogCAP
agreement, but that oversight for those requirements is
under the purview of Halliburton and its subcontractors.
Diverted to Iraq
Challenging Halliburton and Army assurances, former KBR supervisors say they
frequently witnessed subcontractors failing to meet required
conditions , while some TCNs share horror stories with
claims that they were falsely recruited, believing they were
signing up for work in Kuwait and then having their contract
changed to Iraq.
“I had no idea that I would end up in Iraq” says Ramil
Autencio, who signed with MGM Worldwide Manpower and General
Services in the Philippines. The 37-year-old air
conditioning maintenance worker thought he would be working
at Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month.
He arrived in Kuwait in December 2003, only to discover that
First Kuwaiti had bought his contract. The company, which
now holds U.S.-funded contracts valued in the neighborhood
of $1 billion, threatened that unless he and dozens of other
Filipino workers went to Iraq, the Kuwaiti police would
arrested them, he says. “We had no choice but to go along
with them. After all, we were in their country.”
Once in Iraq, Autencio found that there were no air
conditioners to install or maintain, so he spent 11 hours a
day “moving boulders” to fortify the camps, first at
Camp Anaconda and then at Tikrit.
Food was inadequate and workers were not getting paid, he
says. “We ate when the Americans had leftovers from their
meals. If not, we didn’t eat at all.”
Working and living conditions were so bad, that in February
2004 Autencio escaped with dozens of others. A U.S. soldier
born in the Philippines helped them leave the camp, and
sympathetic truck drivers working for KBR offered them rides
through the country. By the time the Filipinos reached the
Kuwaiti border, Autencio said the number of fleeing workers
was so great that the border police let them pass through
without proper papers.
First Kuwaiti general manager Wahid al Absi says Autencio is
lying. His proof is a working agreement, purportedly signed
in the Philippines by Autencio. Al Absi admits that
unscrupulous recruitment agencies do sometimes misrepresent
jobs and take money from people eager to work, but he
provided Autencio’s undated contract with First Kuwaiti
that identified the job site as both Kuwait and “mainly”
The agreement also lays out salary: $346 a month for 8-hour
days, seven days a week, plus $104 a month for a mandatory 2
hours overtime every day.
Al Absi insists that Autencio was paid in full.
“He sued me in court over this, and he lost,” Al Absi
said. “He doesn’t have a case against us.”
First Kuwaiti holds $600 million in Army contracts, Al Absi
said. The company is also a leading competitor for $500
million contract to build the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and
presently holds contracts for more than $300 million for
preliminary work on the project.
Pattern of Recruiting Abuses
Autencio is not the only former TCN worker with a grievance
against Halliburton subcontractors and the layers of third-party recruiters.
The Washington Post lays out an intricate recruiting scheme
involving dining service workers from India who were lost in
a maze of five recruiters and subcontractors on several
continents. The Indians claimed to have been falsely
recruited for jobs in Kuwait, only to end up in Iraq. During
their time at a military camp in the war zone, they lacked
adequate drinking water, food, health care, and security,
according to the July 1, 2004 article.
"I cursed my fate -- not having a feeling my life was
secure, knowing I could not go back, and being treated like
a kind of animal," for less than $7 a day, Dharmapalan
Ajayakumar told the newspaper.
Ajayakumar’s case is a study in the convoluted world of
Iraqi contracts: Workers were reported to have been first
recruited by Subhash Vijay in India to work for Gulf
Catering Company of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Gulf Catering was
subcontracted to Alargan Group of Kuwait City, which was
subcontracted to the Event Source of Salt Lake City, which
in turn was subcontracted to KBR of Houston. And KBR, of
course, is a subsidiary of Halliburton.
Nepalese worker Krishna Bahadur Khadka told a similar story
of false recruitment in a September 7, 2004 news report in
the Kathmandu Post. After being recruited for a job in
Kuwait, he says, he arrived only to be told by First Kuwaiti
Trading that if he and 121 other workers they refused work
in Iraq, they would be sent back to Nepal.
“I was not happy at first as my contractors did not
provide me a job as heavy vehicle driver as pledged. But
they had offered Rs 175,000 [$2,450], and one would not be
able earn half that amount in Kuwait. So I signed the
papers,” Khadka said, adding that he had already invested
$1,680 as payment to an agent in Nepal.
First Kuwaiti’s general manager claims that this
allegation, too, is a lie and that Khadka misrepresented his
skills. Again al Absi presented a contract identifying the
work site as “mainly Iraq." It bore Khadka’s
signature and fingerprint.
“Khadka is a troublemaker who was trying to organize the
workers,” al Absi said, noting that thousands of TCNs
working for First Kuwaiti have renewed their contracts with
raises. “We treat our workers with excellent care,” he
Labor Strike, You’re Out
But cared for or not, hundreds of Filipinos in Iraq face
being fired for staging labor strikes and sickouts to
protest their treatment at military camps. In May 2005, 300
Filipinos went on strike at Camp Cook against PPI and KBR.
The workers were soon joined by 500 others from India, Sri
Lanka, and Nepal to protest working conditions and pay,
according to the Manila Times. The dispute was settled with
intervention from the Philippines Department of Foreign
At the time of the strike, the Philippines offered the
strikers free flights back to the Philippines, an invitation
first made in April when the Philippines reiterated its ban
on work in Iraq. The offer sparked concern at the U.S.
embassy in Manila, according to news reports, because a loss
of Filipino workers threatened military support services in
The U.S. embassy then clarified its position on April 27.
Embassy spokesperson Karen Kelley acknowledged that while
Filipinos “play a crucial role in the allied effort to
bring peace and democracy to a people who have been too long
deprived of both,” embassy officials also “recognize the
government of the Philippines' concern for the welfare of
Other strikes have gone unreported, recalls former KBR
employee Paul Dinsmore. Hired as a carpenter, he later
transferred to Logistics as a heavy truck driver at Camp
Speicher, a sprawling 24-square-mile installation near
Tikrit in northern Iraq. Dinsmore says the work crews he
supervised at the former Iraqi airbase were made up of
Hindis, Pakistanis, Nepalese, and Filipinos working for
Working at Camp Speicher for seven months before returning
home in May 2005, Dinsmore said he knew of three different
instances of TCN construction workers who refused outright
to work or showed up only to sit out most of the day. Asked
what was going on, TCNs told him that First Kuwaiti had not
been paid them for several months and that they didn’t
want to be treated that way.
“I heard that several hundred Filipinos were fired in
September 2004 before I got there because of labor
problems,” Dinsmore said. After discovering that the TCN
assistants were not paid any overtime, he was careful to get
them back to their compound after their 10 hour day.
Like Powell and Reynolds, Dinsmore recounted dismal working
conditions. “One of the construction Filipinos told him
that they were treated like human cattle by some of the
Western employees there and that they did not receive enough
medical treatment when they were ill.”
Many times, Dinsmore said, he would buy non-prescription
drugs from the PX for his crews, especially when a very bad
virus was going around during the winter of 2004-2005. If
the case was bad enough, he would take the workers to the
KBR clinic. His supervisor and the clinic medics told him
that treating TCNs violated company policy. “We were told
that First Kuwaiti was supposed to take care of them,”
Dinsmore also turned to the Army for food. He says the food
First Kuwaiti served was so poor, that he and other KBR
employees would hand out military field rations – known as
“meals ready to eat” or MREs. "When the Army
stopped that practice, many of us KBR people would pick up
“to go” plates from the DFAC [dining facilities] and
hand them out to the TCNs we were responsible for. If you
want them to work well, you’ve got to feed them.”
Despite these conditions, TCNs finished jobs ahead of
schedule, says Dinsmore. He credits these workers for
personal praise he won from KBR and the military for his own
performance. “The reality was that without the TCNs, very
little construction would get accomplished on time on
Speicher,” said Dinsmore adding that "I heard that
eventually KBR took care of the pay issue."
First Kuwaiti manager Wadih Al Absi insists that his company
provides the same quality of living and food that the U.S.
Army provides to its soldiers and that the company has
received commendations from the Army. “We have no problems
with our employees; they get excellent care,” he said.
Let Them Eat Sand
Randy McDale, who rose to be a KBR foreman for heavy
construction equipment at Camp Victory and other
installations near the Baghdad International Airport,
confirmed many of the other contractors’ and TCN’s
charges of miserable conditions and inadequate safety.
“Everyday was like T-bone steaks for us, but I would
starve to death before eating what they had,” he said of
the workers with PPI. “Guys would just go and get lunch
for them and bring it to the work site. The TCNs couldn’t
get it fast enough.”
McDale, a KBR foreman for heavy construction equipment at
Camp Victory and other installations near the Baghdad
International Airport, spent 15 months in Iraq before
returning home in April to an eight-year-old trailer house
on 35-acres of land in cattle ranch country outside of
Bogata, Texas, “halfway between Paris and Texarkana.”
Earning about $7,500 to $8,000 a month before his promotion,
McDale said many American workers saw a clear line between
themselves and the TCNs. “There’s a prejudice among some
Americans that they are not equal and just labor force,”
he said. “Americans are supposed to be the experts.”
The division was made all the more clear to McDale by TCNs’
lack of protective armor for threat alerts and boots and
hard hats for construction work. “Some were wearing
sandals walking in the mud when it was winter and 40
degrees,” he said of the Indians, Sri Lankans and
Filipinos he worked with. “One guy didn’t even have a
KBR gave McDale grief after he requested 20 hard hats for
his workers, he said. “I don’t know why KBR wasn’t
giving PPI a hard time for not getting the right equipment.
That’s the way it works in the States. If a subcontractor
isn’t ready, you fire them.”
Willing to Return
Although Filipino passports now explicitly ban entry into
Iraq, the ranks of Filipinos sneaking over the border from
neighboring countries has as swelled from an estimated 4,000
before the 2003 ban to 6,000 today.
Filipinos “believe it is better to work in Iraq with their
lives in danger rather than face the danger of not having
breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Philippines,” said
Maita Santiago, secretary-general for Migrante
International, an organization that defends the rights of
more than a million overseas Filipino workers.
Despite complaints about First Kuwaiti, Autencio said he
would return to Iraq if he had guarantees for proper food
and pay. “I would take my chances abroad if I couldn’t
find a decent job here,” he said during an interview at
his home in Pasig City, an urban area in metropolitan Manila
“But I’d take any job here that pays enough to buy me a
second hand car and start my own business.”
Soliman, now finds his problems with PPI and injuries in
Iraq pale in comparison to life back in the Philippines.
Jobless, he sees his life teetering on the edge. He may be
splitting up with his wife, and plans for providing a new
home to his family are on hold. He says he doubts that PPI
will be sending money for his final medical checkup or even
the several months salary he says he is still owed But those
things don't matter so much.
What really matters now is finding another job. “If you
hear of anything, let me know,” Soliman said at the end of
the interview. “I would even go back to Iraq.”