Asian workers trafficked to build U.S. embassy in Baghdad
by David Phinney; Alternet.org; March 03, 2007
Things began looking more sketchier than ever to John Owen as he boarded a nondescript white jet on his way back to Iraq in March 2005 following some R’n’R in Kuwait city.
Employed by First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting, the lead builder for the new $592-million US embassy in Baghdad, Owen remembers being surrounded at the airport by about 50 company laborers freshly hired from the Philippines and India. Everyone was holding boarding passes to Dubai — not to Baghdad.
“I thought there was some sort of mix up and I was getting on the wrong plane,” says the 48-year-old Floridian who was working as a general construction foreman on the embassy project.
Seven months after signing on with First Kuwaiti in November 2005, he quit.
In the resignation letter last June, Owen told First Kuwaiti and US State Department officials that his managers physically assaulted and beat the construction workers, demonstrated little regard for worker safety, and routinely breached security.
And it was all happening smack in the middle of the US-controlled Green Zone — right under the nose of the State Department that had quietly awarded the controversial embassy contract in July 2005.
He also complained of poor sanitation, squalid living conditions and medical malpractice in the labor camps where several thousand low-paid migrant workers lived. Those workers, recruited on the global labor market from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and other poor south Asian countries, earned as little as $10 to $30 a day. As with many US-funded contractors, First Kuwaiti prefers importing labor because it views Iraqi workers as a security headache not worth the trouble.
Despite numerous emails and phone calls about such allegations, neither First Kuwaiti general manager Wadih Al Absi nor his lawyer Angela Styles, the former top White House contract policy advisor, have responded. After a year of requests, State Department officials involved with the project also have ignored or rejected opportunities for comment.
Your Passports Please
That same March Owen returned to work in Baghdad, Rory Mayberry would witness similar events after he flew to Kuwait from his home in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.
The gravely voiced, easy-going Army veteran had previously worked in Iraq for Halliburton and the private security company, Danubia. Missing the action and the big paychecks US contractors draw Iraq, he snagged a $10,000 a month job with MSDS consulting Company.
MSDS is a two-person minority-owned consulting company that assists US State Department managers in Washington with procurement programming. Never before had the firm offered medical services or worked in Iraq, but First Kuwaiti hired MSDS on the recommendation of Jim Golden, the State Department contract official overseeing the embassy project. Within days, an agreement worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical care was signed.
The 45-year-old Mayberry, a former emergency medical technician in the Army who worked as a funeral director in Oregon, responded to a help wanted ad placed by MSDS. The plan was that he would work as a medic attending to the construction crews on the work site in Baghdad.
Mayberry sensed things weren’t right when he boarded a First Kuwaiti flight on March 15 to Baghdad — a different flight from Owen’s.
At the airport in Kuwait City, Mayberry said, he saw a person behind a counter hand First Kuwaiti managers a passenger manifest, an envelope of money and a stack of boarding passes to Dubai. The managers then handed out the boarding passes to Mayberry and 50 or so new First Kuwaiti laborers, mostly Filipinos.
“Everyone was told to tell customs and security that they were flying to Dubai,” Mayberry explains. Once the group passed the guards, they went upstairs and waited by the McDonald’s for First Kuwaiti staff to unlock a door — Gate 26 — that led to an unmarked, white 52-seat jet. It was “an antique piece of shit” Mayberry offers in a casual, blunt manner.
“All the workers had their passports taken away by First Kuwaiti,” Mayberry claims, and while he knew the plane was bound for Baghdad, he’s not so sure the others were aware of their destination. The Asian laborers began asking questions about why they were flying north and the jet wasn’t flying east over the ocean, he says. “I think they thought they were going to work in Dubai.”
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