Escape from Iraq: Filipino Migrant Worker Recounts Nightmare Flight

He Didn't Want to Go: Ramil Autencio thought he was traveling to Kuwait for a job in a luxury hotel. The employer, a major Kuwait contractor working for the US government, instead pressured him to work on US military camps in Iraq. The father of two recounts his escape with more than 40 others during interview in Manila. He says he never wanted to go. Iraqslogger, Alternet and Inter Press Service, Part 1 and Part 2. (June 2007). Story reiterated in Philippines.

Ramil Autencio sitting in front of his home in Manila, Philippines, Fall 2006.
Ramil Autencio sitting in front of his home in Manila, Philippines, Fall 2006.











by David Phinney
December 25, 2006

Ramil Autencio dreamed of making a better life in the Philippines for himself and his young family with the promise of a good-paying job in Kuwait. He never suspected that weeks after leaving home in December 2003 he would be living a wartime nightmare in northern Iraq, pushing boulders 11 hours a day, seven days a week for a contractor fortifying a U.S. military camp in Tikrit.

Showers to wash off the day's sweat were an uncertainty, and in the chilly January and February nights of 2004, he and seven other Filipinos would live in an empty truck container with no windows, sleep on cardboard boxes for a bed, and eat leftovers and ready-to-eat meals from soldiers. It was the only way to get enough food. Crackling gunfire and crashing incoming mortar would wake them at all hours of the night and the unfortified trailer would tremble and shake from nearby rocket blasts.

It was not what he had planned at all.

Hoping to earn $450 a month

Trained as an air conditioning repairman and technician, Autencio says his recruiter in the Philippines agreed to place him in a two-year job at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month -- maybe more with overtime. But after arriving at the Kuwait airport, he was quickly shuttled to a rundown apartment building managed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a Kuwaiti firm doing a booming multimillion-dollar business with the U.S. military and the Pentagon's primary support contractor KBR.

To date, the company has billed the U.S. government perhaps $2 billion for work in Iraq, including the $592 million U.S. embassy in Baghdad now nearing completion.

There were no more jobs at the hotel, Autencio was informed, and because the job recruiter had processed him for only a one-month travel visa, he could not work in Kuwait. Autencio said First Kuwaiti offered him one of three options: pay a $1,000 penalty and work unpaid in Kuwait for six months, be arrested and jailed, or work in Iraq. As he weighed these choices, he would live in the dilapidated apartment building with 800 other Filipinos, where, at first, there were no mattresses or blankets. They ate only small pieces of chicken and rice under the building's crumbling ceilings.

"A jail would be better," Autencio recalled. "We were ordered to go. ... They forcibly brought us to Iraq."

Former supervisors with First Kuwaiti who have since left the company call the three-story building Jaleeb.

"They would lock them in without documents -- no passports or IDs," recalled one longtime supervisor. "The building was so crowded, you could barely breathe." Many say one Filipino lost his mind and died while Autencio was there.

Another supervisor agreed the building was "a mess" and said, after much urging, it was cleaned up sometime in 2006.

First Kuwaiti's general manager, Wadih Al-Absi consistently denies that his company would ever endorse such recruitment practices. During numerous conversations, he has said that First Kuwaiti never pressured workers into Iraq or violated international visa requirements. During one meeting in Washington, D.C., in September 2005, he said that people were envious of his company's success. "People will never criticize someone who fails," he said.

Al-Absi also flatly accused Autencio of lying. His proof is a working agreement, purportedly signed by Autencio before leaving the Philippines. Although Al-Absi admitted that unscrupulous recruitment agencies do sometimes misrepresent jobs and take money from people eager to work, he provided Autencio's undated contract with First Kuwaiti, which identified the job site as Kuwait and "mainly" Iraq.

The agreement also lays out salary: $346 a month for eight-hour days, seven days a week, plus $104 a month for a mandatory two hours overtime every day.

Company placed on 'watch list'

Despite Al-Absi's protests of innocence, the Philippine government placed First Kuwaiti on a "watch list" in June 2005 that lasts to this day, according to a Philippine official. It is a warning to the company to comply with worker contracts. Al-Absi said he was unaware of that action.

First Kuwaiti placed a job order with Philippine Overseas Employment Agency in November 2003 for more than 700 workers, according to the official. Only 41 of those jobs were listed for Iraq, while the remainder was advertised for being in Kuwait.

One former First Kuwaiti logistics manager who processed workers told me he witnessed the company send more than 500 Philippine laborers into Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 to work on the construction of U.S. military camps.

A frequent complaint among Filipino workers is that they are issued tourist visas when traveling to the Middle East for work. Such visas prevent them from getting the jobs they planned to have, and they then have few options but to take work in Iraq. "So many were issued tourist visas," the official said. "We have no concrete evidence, but there are so many workers with these complaints."

Because of allegations of labor trafficking and other abuses, First Kuwaiti is now under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, precipitated by American employees reporting last October that workers transiting Kuwait were handed boarding passes for Dubai before landing in Baghdad. A Philippine official also recently announced that his government has renewed an investigation into the recruitment practices of firms that supplied workers to First Kuwaiti.

Because of ongoing allegations about labor trafficking and worker abuse, U.S. State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard conducted a site review of the U.S. embassy project in September. "Nothing came to our attention," Krongard wrote in his nine-page memorandum released in late April, although his office admitted this week that First Kuwaiti had a three-month advance warning about his visit. An addendum to Krongard's report by the multinational force inspector general in Baghdad did find complaints about deceptive hiring practices by recruitment agencies after interviewing 36 workers in a March 2007 site inspection.

A nightmare unfolded

Autencio recounted his tale last November while sitting in front of his home -- a two-room shack assembled with old wood and sheet metal on a dirt alley off a busy commercial street in metropolitan Manila. A tattered curtain hangs across the front entrance. Jets fly overhead connecting some 8 million Filipino laborers, 10 percent of the nation's population, to the global economy -- most seeking more than the $10 a day that many make at home.

A stray dog and a few cats pattered by as Autencio's wife Angela and his two small children watched him carefully unfold a plastic grocery bag holding his documents. Speaking in Tagalong, he holds each paper like a sacred text that strengthens his resolve to share the hell he says he endured.

While at Jaleeb in Kuwait, Autencio claims he signed papers as a supervisor placed his hand over the paragraphs. "I don't read Arabic or English, but it was that, or jail," he recalled. Before leaving the Philippines, the papers he signed at the airport were for work in Kuwait, he stressed again and again. He did not want to go to Iraq.

Autencio said after a few weeks in Jaleeb, a handwritten memo listing his name among others was posted warning people to prepare for travel to Iraq: "People received $100 salary deductions for failure to get on the buses. Furthermore, their daily deductions will be made from their salary until they reach Iraq, and their salaries will not be paid until the end of the month. If your name is on the list below and you wish to go back to the Philippines, you will still have to work until you can pay for your ticket expenses equivalent to USD $1,000.

"These people failed to meet their departure dates for Iraq, which means that they also delayed many of your departures. Delayed departures mean that you might receive your salary late because no more salaries will be paid in Kuwait. All salaries will be paid in Iraq! If everyone wishes to receive their salary on time, you must make sure that you do not miss your departure date, and make sure no one else fails to go!"

Once in Tikrit, Autencio said he was not getting paid. He was told the money was waiting in Kuwait, but the conditions became increasingly unbearable for him and the Filipinos working with him.

Escaping the war

As if sharing a secret, Autencio carefully unfolds a dog-eared yellow piece of paper and passes it over like a quiet secret. He circulated the paper among his fellow workers, who agreed to flee Iraq and their unwanted servitude. Over 40 Filipinos signed their names. They believed their chances would be better if they stuck together.

Autencio befriended a sympathetic Filipino soldier in the U.S. Army who persuaded a driver of a flatbed truck headed south towards the Kuwaiti border to take the group with him. For three nights they rode in darkness, packed tight on a truck with very little food or water. "We were nearly starved," Autencio said.

When they arrived at the border, the sheer number of desperate Filipinos arriving without papers stunned the Kuwaiti police, who tried to prevent them from leaving Iraq.

"We were even angrier then because one of us had died, so there was nothing they could do to stop us," Autencio continued. "We pushed them away when they asked for our papers. ... We outnumbered them."

The group made their way to the Philippines embassy, where the ambassador reluctantly allowed them shelter until their return home could be arranged. For a while, Kuwaiti police waited outside planning to arrest them, Autencio said.

Ramil claims he was only paid $300 for the entire three-month ordeal. He sued First Kuwaiti for back pay but lost in court. He blames that on his lawyer, who was unqualified. A second lawyer he hired disappeared.

That was enough for First Kuwaiti to conclude that Autencio's allegations are nothing but fiction.

"He sued me in court over this, and he lost," Al Absi said. "He doesn't have a case against us."

In April 2006, the Pentagon confirmed in a new contracting order that an investigation of U.S.-funded contractors in Iraq found significant evidence of deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees in debting workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures. It also noted the illegal confiscation of passports by employers and the lack of mandatory "awareness training" in labor trafficking.

"Leaders must understand the dynamics and indicators of trafficking and be vigilant in correcting and reporting suspected violations or activities," the Pentagon stressed in the contracting order. No company or contractor is named in the Pentagon's findings, and the U.S. government has not publicly penalized or prosecuted any U.S.-funded contractor in Iraq for labor trafficking and abuse.

The U.S. State Department recently awarded some $200 million in new contracts to First Kuwaiti for embassy work in Africa, India and Indonesia. The company also is said to be competing for a new U.S. embassy project in Lebanon.

Autencio's story is now featured in the new documentary Someone Else's War, currently circulating in the Philippines and at U.S. film festivals.

Journalist Lucille Quiambao contributed research and translation to this report. David Phinney can be contacted at



Website Created by Red Dot Creative Media

All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Copyright 2005,  David Phinney