Indentured Brownitude in Iraq – Your Tax Dollars at Work

Recently, I read a story about South Asian workers mistreated by military contractors in Iraq. They were lied to about where they were going, the terms of their contracts were violated, they weren’t paid, they had lousy working conditions, and their passports were withheld so they couldn’t leave. As a result, the US military has had to spend its time cracking down on conditions in its kitchens when it has larger fish to fry:The man told them they would not get any more food. “We bought you,”

The U.S. military said Tuesday that it had issued new orders to private contractors in Iraq to crack down on violations of human trafficking laws involving laborers … at American bases and other sites. An inspection completed in late March uncovered evidence that it was widespread practice among firms providing services to the military to take away their workers’ passports to keep them in place… Hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers, many from South Asia, are employed by contractors at U.S. bases and elsewhere in Iraq as cooks, food servers, janitors, construction workers and in other menial jobs.

Human rights groups have reported complaints by some workers that they were tricked into coming into Iraq. After they paid fees to recruiters in their home countries for jobs said to be in the Gulf, their passports were taken and they were forced to go to Iraq, the workers said. The groups have also reported complaints of withheld pay and overtime and unsuitable working and housing conditions. [Link]

This is deja vu all over again. Almost exactly the same stories first came to light 2 years ago this month when four men from Kerala came back from Iraq after working for a subcontractor for Kellogg, Brown & Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton):

While their Western managers slept in air-conditioned trailers, they were crammed into tents in 100-degree-plus temperatures. The cooks set aside some rice and curry for them but it was not enough and they had to supplement their food with whatever was left over from the soldiers’ meals — which was often nothing. They were told they could not take the filtered bottled water but instead must drink the Iraqi tap water that was poured into aluminum buckets with tablets of chlorine and chunks of ice… Ajayakumar said he threw up for weeks from the contaminated water…. [W]hen they were handed a dinner of beef curry that hadn’t been fully cooked, several dozen of them went to their manager, who worked for Gulf Catering, to complain. According to the workers, the man told them they would not get any more food. “We bought you,” he reportedly said. [Link]

The men say they were told they could not leave for six months:

They said their supervisor, who had taken their passports in Kuwait, told them they were obligated to work on the base for six months and could not leave. [Link]

The subcontractor confirmed that their passports were held, but said they were taken away for safekeeping:

Mr. Smith said the men’s accounts of being mistreated in Iraq were false. He said that no workers were held against their will and that passports had been collected after a fire on an American base destroyed some workers’ passports. [Link]

No matter who was correct two years ago, the US military’s investigation confirmed that taking away passports remains conventional behavior today and is illegal:

The U.S. military inspection found that employers were violating U.S. law by withholding passports to prevent workers from jumping to other employers, Johnson said in a statement.

“The rights to freedom of movement and quality living standards are serious issues,” he said, and the U.S. military in Iraq “takes a zero tolerance approach to any violation.” [Link]

This is the problem with incomplete privatization – you get efficiency gains not from moving from public to private per se, but rather from moving from monopoly to competition. You need transparency and enforcement of contracts, not a few large no bid contracts with endless subcontracting without responsibility.

I have a modest proposal to avoid future such problems. Marketize further. The government should set up incentives in its contract — harsh penalties for violating its terms — and then hire many Indian accountants to come to Iraq and work on a bounty system to make sure that the contract is being followed. This would save the US money, since it is currently paying for working conditions that are not provided, and lead to better working conditions to boot. Heck, if you really want to create incentives, you could say that all egregious subcontractors – whether Indian, Saudi or American – would have to take their employees place for a month. Whaddya think?

Related stories: Sri Lankan maids abused in Middle East

49 thoughts on “Indentured Brownitude in Iraq – Your Tax Dollars at Work

  1. Great post Ennis. On a related note, I posted a story under the news tab about Bangladeshis being abused in sweatshops in Jordan. Link

  2. Arabs are …

    [note: referenced comment has been deleted by admin]

    that’s what a few decades of colonialism will do to you. remember, jordan was a british protectorate. they’re just trying to ape the white man by shitting on someone whose ass is a bit browner.

  3. This is the problem with incomplete privatization – you get efficiency gains not from moving from public to private per se, but rather from moving from monopoly to competition. You need transparency and enforcement of contracts, not a few large no bid contracts with endless subcontracting without responsibility.

    VERY WELL SAID. I could go on and on about this, but you hit the nail on the head.

  4. I have a modest proposal to avoid future such problems. Marketize further. The government should set up incentives in its contract — harsh penalties for violating its terms — and then hire many Indian accountants to come to Iraq and work on a bounty system to make sure that the contract is being followed.

    Was this tongue in cheek? You speak as if firms that subcontract (which is probably the best description of the Bush administration) are wholly uninterested in maintaining the low, low prices (or other benefits–in this case high high profits for corporate friends) that they get by not paying attentiuon to how their subcontrators’ workers are treated. The political interests precede the contract arrangements (and policy discussions in general).

  5. SG:

    I posted a story under the news tab about Bangladeshis being abused in sweatshops in Jordan. Link

    Thanks for the link. I don’t know what’s worse – the fact that they have to work so hard or that they don’t get paid. For most of them it would probably be the latter.

    razib:

    remember, jordan was a british protectorate. they’re just trying to ape the white man by shitting on someone whose ass is a bit browner.

    You’re being sarcastic right? I think there should be a separate font for sarcasm for those of us who are comprehension-challenged.

  6. seems google thinks i only said “brownitude” once. yeah, i was being sarcastic…though the cookie-cutter shit that i said above was pretty easy to babble out. sometimes i wish i could promote standard model blather, the cognitive overhead is so light and the righteousness quotient is pretty gratifying.

    “if you’re brown, stick around! if you’re white, that’s not alright!”

  7. I have a modest proposal to avoid future such problems.

    On a related note, Stephen Harper Eats Babies.

    Seriously though, I’m with someone else: without a strong campaign, it seems the administration has very little motivation to pay heed to these findings. Who’s out there advocating on behalf of these workers? Do their own governments even give two shits? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m really interested to know if anyone can shed light on this.

    This would save the US money, since it is currently paying for working conditions that are not provided…

    Are you sure they’re paying for working conditions that aren’t being provided? Do these contracts generally stipulate what working conditions will be for these workers?

  8. OMG leena, thanks for that link. Unbelievable! I love the fact that he went on to say that he would ask Rumsfeld even after she’d told him she’d already asked Rumsfeld and he wasn’t very specific…

  9. do they have paperwork in india showing what they were promised if not I dont think they have a case. If they do the employer will be screwed big time (1) he promised them a salary(breach of contract) (2) There was an executive order not to do business in iraq parts of it have been lifted but i think the time zones in this story

  10. There was a Qatari student who rolled w/ our crew of desis back in undergrad. Although he was cool, his brother would angrily scold him not to hang out with indian/pakistani/etc. His reasoning? “These people are our SERVANTS! Not our friends!” Luckily, even he came around after a semester, but it wasn’t easy breaking his ignorance.

  11. Ennis,

    wrt GGK (11#), Can the contractors be tried in India, or can they even be tried in US?

    I am asking this because I am not sure that US Companies employing foreing labour on foreign soil are subjected to strict american labour laws.

    Once Discriminate (12#),

    You let him come around !!

    Regards

  12. (2) There was an executive order not to do business in iraq parts of it have been lifted but i think the time zones in this story

    sorry i meant the time lines in this story…

  13. wrt GGK (11#), Can the contractors be tried in India, or can they even be tried in US?

    I dont know if the subcontractor who got them laborers is a us entitiy. it is a indo-mid east hybrid entity so its not going to be subject to US laws…

  14. Madurai said:

    Are you sure they’re paying for working conditions that aren’t being provided? Do these contracts generally stipulate what working conditions will be for these workers?

    Good question – some contracts do:

    Paul Morrell, president of the Event Source, whose representative was in charge of the dining facilities at Q-West, said he was surprised by the workers’ allegations . He said the Event Source’s agreement with its subcontractors requires them to provide adequate food and water and flak jackets, helmets and security guards to workers when they travel to and from bases. But, he acknowledged, the company had been unable to independently verify whether the requirements had been met.

    I can’t tell how many.

  15. GGK – Both of these accounts, the ones from 2 years ago and the recent ones happened after the executive order. As for responsibility, and who could be sued, here’s the story from two years ago. It involves Indian recruiters, a Saudi middle man, and a US contractor:

    Ajayakumar was thrilled when a recruiting agent came to him in June 2003 and offered to “sell” him a two-year work visa in Kuwait for a catering company job that would pay $200 a month … Ajayakumar boarded a train for Mumbai … There, at an employment agency called Subhash Vijay Associates, they signed some papers and were handed tickets to Kuwait… In Kuwait City, the workers were put on a bus and told they were going to “the border.” It didn’t stop until they arrived at Q-West, a camp occupied by the 101st Airborne Division near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. There, the men became part of the largest civilian workforce supporting the U.S. military in history. Subhash Vijay had hired them to work for Gulf Catering Co. of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which 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. They were issued ID cards that said “Brown & Root.” [Link]

    BTW, the different versions of these stories are inconsistent. The Washington Post says that (in the incident 2 years ago) they were paid their base salary, but not overtime, and for a shorter period than they had expected to work:

    While they were paid their promised base salaries — how much overtime they deserved and got is a matter of dispute — it was not enough to make up for the agent’s fee and the interest payments many had racked up. They had assumed they would be working for two years, not nine months. [Link]
  16. Seriously though, I’m with someone else: without a strong campaign, it seems the administration has very little motivation to pay heed to these findings. Who’s out there advocating on behalf of these workers? Do their own governments even give two shits?

    Madurai – they already paid a political cost for this. The original stories came out around the same time as Abhu Ghraib, and it sealed the Indian governments decision not to commit any troops to Iraq.

    It’s actually in the military’s self interest not to have such high turnover of workers, btw, since it increases the risk of infiltration. They’re using desi cooks rather than Iraqis to keep the insurgents out, but if you keep flipping your staff, it’s easy enough to others to come in and work in the camps.

  17. The US Govt. as an employer in the Middle East is a new phenomenon (2003 onwards). What ennis describes has been standard operating procedure since the 70s. This is when large numbers of unskilled/semi-skilled workforce from India started working in the Middle East. Short of KBR/US Govt. directly employing tens of thousands of desi citizens directly, there can be no surefire way of ensuring that sub-contractors do not exploit their employees. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the government whose citizens are being exploited. Unfortunately, the Indian govt. has been ignoring the fact that travel documents of it’s citizens (unskilled/semi-skilled) are taken away by the employer in Middle East since the 70s. Came up with this link in a short search. http://indiandiaspora.nic.in/diasporapdf/chapter3.pdf See 3.24.

  18. What ennis describes has been standard operating procedure since the 70s. This is when large numbers of unskilled/semi-skilled workforce from India started working in the Middle East.

    I could never understand this – Indian workers getting treating like crap in the Middle East is nothing new, but successive governments in New Delhi never press this issue with those nations. OTOH, foreigners working in India, whether it is in the private sector or for some NGO, often receive excellent service. True, they are not coming in as laborers, but a number of years ago, when missionary Grahm Staines of Australia and his two sons were burned to death in their car, the case received national attention and a vigorous prosecution.
    The original stories came out around the same time as Abhu Ghraib, and it sealed the Indian governments decision not to commit any troops to Iraq.

    Abu Ghraib came to light in 2004, but India declined to send troops in 2003 – namely because Washington was hesitant to allow India a hand in the political processes in Iraq. The bitter lesson India learned in Sri Lanka in the 80′s is that the nation will only commit its troops abroad when it has a say in such a process, or under a clearly defined UN mission (such as in a number of African nations).

  19. successive governments in New Delhi never press this issue with those nations. OTOH, foreigners working in India, whether it is in the private sector or for some NGO, often receive excellent service.

    That’s simply a function of the power heirarchy; India is just not a nation with that kind of status yet. Countries, like people, are compelled to stay in their ‘aukaad’.

    The other part is the animosity of the RI vs the NRI. Popular opinion in India does not exactly rally in favor of the Indian residing abroad, because of the ‘crab mentality’ i.e. ‘he’s getting what he deserves, what was he thinking, the foreigners are gonna treat him like a prince?’

    Hopefully this will change in future as India acquires more international clout and the average person does better.

  20. TPG

    The other part is the animosity of the RI vs the NRI. Popular opinion in India does not exactly rally in favor of the Indian residing abroad, because of the ‘crab mentality’ i.e. ‘he’s getting what he deserves, what was he thinking, the foreigners are gonna treat him like a prince?’

    That is a lie. Quit self pity, it is not good.

  21. That’s simply a function of the power heirarchy; India is just not a nation with that kind of status yet. Countries, like people, are compelled to stay in their ‘aukaad’.

    It cannot be that – Indian laborers are treated poorly in other developing nations, not developed ones. Contrast the treatment a working class Indian gets in a Western nation like the U.S. or Canada vs. their treatment in the Middle East. And if a working class Indian does get treated like chattel in the U.S. (there was one prominent case about 2 years ago, but the details are fuzzy), there are numerous organizations to come to their aid.

    The fact is that Arabs and Indians share a common disdain towards labor – so long as the Indians keep sending the money home, New Delhi does not care.

  22. That is a lie. Quit self pity, it is not good.

    Sorry, beg to differ. Personal experience. No self-pity involved.

    The fact is that Arabs and Indians share a common disdain towards labor – so long as the Indians keep sending the money home, New Delhi does not care.

    True, that. A good point that I did not think of. And neither do other people, even their families. We just ‘expect’ to be treated badly, I think. It’s kindof a social comeuppance for the very real disdain for labor we show our fellow-beings in our own country.

  23. That is a lie. Quit self pity, it is not good.
    Sorry, beg to differ. Personal experience. No self-pity involved.

    Personal experiecne is not statistics !

  24. Personal experiecne is not statistics !

    And statistics is not personal experience.

  25. There are significant numbers of non-Indian South Asians there too.

    Agreed and it is not just South Asians. Tremendous numbers of Filipinos are in the same boat. My point is unskilled/semi-skilled workforce has been exploited since the 70s as a response to what ennis highlighted (shown below).

    … widespread practice among firms providing services to the military to take away their workersÂ’ passports to keep them in placeÂ… Hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers, many from South Asia, are employed by contractors at U.S. bases and elsewhere in Iraq as cooks, food servers, janitors, construction workers …

    My point also was that it would be impossible for the KBR/US Govt. to prevent subcontractors from existing modes of operation (take away travel/job papers) short of hiring these workers. This can be tough since they are citizens of a third country. It is the responsibility of the nations whose citizens are being exploited to solve the problem.

    In fact the Indian govt. has recognized this problem on their website http://indiandiaspora.nic.in/diasporapdf/chapter3.pdf Remember, this document was written prior to 2002 and ackowledges the issue in 3.24, 3.25 & 3.29. Even now in 2006 the trip from acknowledgement to solution has not been made.

  26. India still depends on oil and the remittances from the Gulf countries. Until we get off the oil dependency, the Indian govt can’t do much, though they can do a little better than they are doing. It is not onl SOutha Asians, even Arabs from non-gulf countries hate the Gulf Arabs. I have heard this from a Kuwait-born Palestinian (he didn’t have Kuwaiti citizenship, ecen though he was born there) who told stories of ho they were treated (not as bad as S. Asians, but still insulted and discriminated) and from colleagues who are from Morocco.

  27. India still depends on oil and the remittances from the Gulf countries. Until we get off the oil dependency, the Indian govt can’t do much, though they can do a little better than they are doing.

    I do not understand this hiC. We buy their oil. We pay a fair price. They buy the services of workers. They should abide by basic rights. Each country is dependent on another for products/services. Bringing up the issue of an desi citizen’s passport being held by an employer is fair during a bilateral meeting. What’s with this “get off the oil dependency”.

    In most countries you are not a citizen unless you are born to a citizen. In the gulf countries there is no other way to become one. No gulf country allows for ownership (business) without a majority partnership for it’s citizen. Land ownership is out of the question. Except maybe for Dubai.

    The Palestinian’s discriminatory treatment was probably due to their support of Saddam when he occupied Kuwait in 1990.

  28. The fact is that Arabs and Indians share a common disdain towards labor – so long as the Indians keep sending the money home, New Delhi does not care.

    Even though this is somewhat of a generalization, I should say that I learnt a lot about dignity of labor only after coming to the US. For eg, I realized I could never treat a burger flipper at McD’s as badly as a lowly cook gets treated in India. disclaimer: I have also seen people (eg, my own family and relatives) treat household servants totally like normal human beings, so i cant generalize.

  29. What i meant in #31 was that quite a few Indians do not subscribe to or understand the concept of dignity of labor…

  30. Has anyone the movie “Syriana,” starring George Clooney? The movie starts off with South Asians boarding a bus in the Persian Gulf. There is big struggle amongst the crowd to get on the buses. After all, it is their livelihood, as day laborers. However, the war in Iraq is not the Persian Gulf; a lot of South Asians are being tricked into going to a place where there is no security/workers rights-Iraq.

    Gagandeep Bindra

  31. Sad story, thanks for the post ennis. good link, leena, thanks.

    How sad is it when our president isn’t really sure about an issue that a freshman in college is passionate about..

  32. going to a place where there is no security/workers rights

    … and the gulf countries have it ?

  33. amaun writes: >>They (Arab countries) should abide by basic rights.

    What are you gonna do if they don’t?

    M. Nam

  34. You missed my point completely. I never said that the Persian Gulf had workers right. However, they do have security since there is no war there. My point was that even though South Asians might consent to going to the Persian Gulf, they are being tricked into working in a War Zone-Iraq under the pretense that they are going to be working in the Persian Gulf.

  35. Out of curiousity, is this the famous Gagandeep “Yo Mama” Bindra from North Carolina?

    No, it’s Gagandeep Singh Bindra.

  36. Out of curiousity, is this the famous Gagandeep “Yo Mama” Bindra from North Carolina?

    No.

  37. Amaun # 30 India still depends on oil and the remittances from the Gulf countries. Until we get off the oil dependency, the Indian govt can’t do much, though they can do a little better than they are doing.

    I do not understand this hiC. We buy their oil. We pay a fair price. They buy the services of workers. They should abide by basic rights. Each country is dependent on another for products/services. Bringing up the issue of an desi citizen’s passport being held by an employer is fair during a bilateral meeting. What’s with this “get off the oil dependency”.

    Not so simple. Until the last 5 years, a substantial part of the foreign exchange came from the remittances from the Gulf. So the GoI didn’t have any leverage to support the workers. If you make too much noise, the Gulf countries would just turn to other soures, which they kind of did after the first Gulf war and Al Qaeda activities when they reduced the dependence on muslims from S. Asia and brought in lots of Chinese and Filipinos. Even now, because of the growing needs for oil because of the robust economic growth, GoI can’t raise issues except at a token level without jeopardizing other things as well as the market for labor in Gulf for the Indian workers.

    In most countries you are not a citizen unless you are born to a citizen. In the gulf countries there is no other way to become one. No gulf country allows for ownership (business) without a majority partnership for it’s citizen. Land ownership is out of the question. Except maybe for Dubai.

    What has that go to do with insults and looking down on people?

    The Palestinian’s discriminatory treatment was probably due to their support of Saddam when he occupied Kuwait in 1990.

    This was told by the person in late 80s before the Saddam invasion and first gulf war. Most Gulf arabs are a despicable lot (sorry for the generalization). They think because of oil, they can get away with anything.

  38. The Palestinian’s discriminatory treatment was probably due to their support of Saddam when he occupied Kuwait in 1990.

    Wrong.

    Please google = Transjordan or Black September or Beruit + Palestinian refugee camps or Jordan + Palestanians or Shia + Sunni + Middle East.

  39. The Palestinian’s discriminatory treatment was probably due to their support of Saddam when he occupied Kuwait in 1990.

    I second Kush Tandon, Completely wrong. The discriminatory treatment of Palestinians in most Arab countries has less to do with their support of Saddam (which, at best, is a generalization), than the monarchical, undemocratic regimes’ fear of destabilization with the question of Palestinian in their territory. Most of the Arab leaders, despite their rhetoric about Palestine, have never truly supported the Palestinians. This is lip service that they pay when they want to soothe domestic discontent. Palestine is a subject that Arab citizens hold dear to their heart, in contrast to the Arab leaders.

  40. Palestine is a subject that Arab citizens hold dear to their heart

    Even that part is highly disputable. Some examples, Lebanon and the civil war in 1970s, Egypt vowing after the Six-Day War that it will never fight other people’s battles (the Battle of Sinai), the Palestinian politics in Jordan that goes back to 1940s and even before, the deep division between Persians, Arabs, and Turks, strange things happened in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan (Black September) in 70-80s, PLO-Hezbollah-Hamas-Syria-Lebanon complications that go back quite a bit in time.

    Some of it (not all) is an expression of anti-Israel rather than empathy for Palestinians on the street. Some is strong emotional but not all.

  41. Correction: Egypt vowing after the Yom Kippur War that it will never fight other people’s battles

    I meant Yom Kippur rather than 1967 Six Day War, Sorry.

  42. Yes, Kush, you are right. The Lebanese civil war provides an excellent example of how Palestinians were treated by various Lebanese civil factions.

    And I even read Robert Fisk’s “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War” three times!!

  43. It’s funny that most respondents here are subcontinentals who most probably also live in the “West” and don’t dare criticize any aspects of the West while even in this article itself, the ‘blame’ is laid on the western world since western companies are seen ‘violating’ contracts.

    It’s also funny that none of the servants of the west dare to question or criticize the hypocrisy, immorality, faggotry, incestuousness or other ills including cold blooded illegal invasion and murder of millions of iraqis, afghans, palestinians and others (directly or indirectly) in last decade alone, of the western world whose servitude seem to be implanted in their minds through centuries of colonialism.

    Won’t you say so ‘razib the bengali’?