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Poor Migrants Work in Iraqi Netherworld

U.S.-hired contractors rely on laborers from impoverished countries, but no one looks out for the rights -- or lives -- of the foreigners.

October 09, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

LELE, Nepal — Ramesh Khadka began the journey to his slaughter in this valley of rivers, where green rice terraces march up the mountains like stairs toward the heavens.

After passing among a series of shadowy, indifferent middlemen, he finished it a month later in a dusty ditch in western Iraq.

There, bound and helpless, the teenager was shot three times in the back of the head by insurgents, his execution and that of 11 of his countrymen captured on videotape.

The 19-year-old and his colleagues were on their way to jobs at a U.S. military base in Al Anbar province when they were kidnapped. The killings last year remain the worst case of violence against private contractors in the Iraq war.

The incident and its aftermath raise troubling questions about America's reliance on the world's poorest people to do the dirtiest jobs in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Contractors working for the United States, including KBR, a Houston-based subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., have brought tens of thousands of workers into Iraq from impoverished countries such as Nepal, the Philippines and Bangladesh to do menial jobs, from cooking and serving food to cleaning toilets.

In relying on a workforce of third-country nationals, however, the U.S. has embraced a system of labor migration rife with abuse, corruption and exploitation, according to dozens of contractors, migrant workers, labor officials and advocates interviewed in four countries.

The system revolves around so-called labor brokers, whose numbers have exploded during the last decade in the Middle East and Asia. Such agencies take advantage of porous borders and rising global demand for cheap labor to move poor workers from one country to low-paying jobs in another.

Although millions of Iraqis are desperate for jobs, the U.S. military requires that contractors such as KBR hire foreigners to work at bases to avoid the possibility of insurgent infiltration.

Willing to work anywhere, the laborers often take out usurious loans to pay the agencies a finder's fee for the overseas jobs. Once abroad, the workers find themselves with few protections and uncertain legal status.

In Iraq, the vulnerability of such workers is heightened. Neither the U.S. nor Iraq has an adequate system for protecting their rights, labor advocates say.

Violence is the greatest risk. At least a third of the 255 contractors reported killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 came from Second or Third World countries, according to a Times analysis of data maintained by a website that tracks contractor deaths.

The enforcement of labor rights appears virtually nonexistent. In the case involving Khadka, for example, it appears that the Nepalese were headed to work for a Jordanian-based subcontractor to KBR, family members and labor agency officials say.

If true, all 12 men should have been covered by generous death benefits required by federal law for anyone working for a U.S. contractor, even indirectly, say insurance and legal experts. But their families have received no such payments.

After questions from The Times, KBR said it would investigate whether benefits were owed. KBR is the largest employer in Iraq of third-country nationals, with about 25,000 workers, typically through Middle Eastern subcontractors.

Because of the danger of exploitation, some labor-exporting countries, such as the Philippines and Nepal, have forbidden their nationals to work in Iraq. But labor brokers bring in such workers using loopholes in a system with almost no regulation. An estimated 5,000 Nepalese work in Iraq.

Labor advocates say the practice amounts to modern-day indentured servitude, funded by U.S. taxpayers.

"This is 2005. This is a sort of slave trade," said Majed Habashneh, undersecretary for Jordan's Labor Ministry, which has struggled to contain a wave of people passing into Iraq. "No one is taking care of the human rights of these people. Who will take responsibility?"

Lack of Opportunity

Khadka, a dark-haired young man with almond-shaped eyes, grew up in a mud and brick home on the outskirts of Lele, one of seven children in a poor farming family.

The village is a place of astonishing beauty an hour south of Katmandu, on a potholed road surrounded by low mountains and rice fields so green they seem to be lighted from within. Water buffalo wander the streets. Fat golden dragonflies buzz through the air. Moss-covered shrines to Hindu deities dot the roadside.

There is not much work in a village like this in Nepal, one of the world's most impoverished countries. Unemployment is compounded by a Maoist insurgency that has killed more than 12,500 people since 1996. Rebels frequently kidnap young men as recruits, providing impetus to flee to cities and abroad for work.

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