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