Abu Ghraib Jobs

The terror attacks in Spain changed a government; the kidnappings in Iraq have changed the shape of the coalition. The Philippines saved one of its nationals by pulling out its fifty-one person force. Thirty two countries remain under the strong arm of the US, who spoke for them on August 5th, “We’re united in our resolve to make no concessions to terrorists, nor to succumb to terrorist threats.”

The kidnappers have made a tactical decision to target foreign civilians, who are easier to kidnap, and use their lives as leverage to demand either the withdrawal of troops or of logistical support.

When some kidnappers killed a Turkish driver, the union of Turkish truckers released a statement against the use of their members to drive goods to US bases. When two Indians fell into the hands of the kidnappers, the newly installed Indian government reiterated its opposition to the deployment of Indian troops in Iraq, and asked its citizens to refrain from the lucre promised by recruiters.

There is now an enormous literature on working-class migrants. Areas of the world assassinated by IMFundamentalism and by the agricultural devastation wrought by conglomerates like Cargill and ADM have produced a desperate and surplus population in debt and in need of a large cache of capital: families are willing to risk long separations and danger to earn some money quickly to get them out of the clutches of moneylenders and agrarian suicides.

One of the Indian men held in Iraq left his village in the agriculturally rich Punjab because his family suffered a debt of over $15,000. Touts of sub-contractors appear in these villages and towns to draw workers for Iraqi “reconstruction.”

They charge a fee of about $2000 from India to Iraq, and promise to get the people jobs that would pay $900 a month. The workers are taken to Iraq, handed over to the subcontractors who work for US firms and made to do the most menial jobs.

An article in India Abroad newspaper by George Iype (July 16) offers us the testimony of a man from Kerala, Peter Thomas, who worked in Iraq and then returned home empty-handed after six months. Recruited in his home-town to go do catering work in Jordan, Thomas was taken by his sub-contractor against his will to work in the laundry section of a US camp in the so-called Sunni Triangle of Iraq.

Whereas the contractors had promised Thomas and others like him wages high enough to compensate for their down payment, they saw only a fraction of it. Once there, they allege that the US officers in charge of them said that their average salary would be $250 per month, but since they would be charged for room and board, they would only see $160.

“We were being treated worse than animals. We lived in dingy cubicles in the makeshift army camp. We never got food on time. Our movements were always restricted. We never got newspapers to read. We were allowed to call our homes only once a month.”

These wages are far below what had been promised to the contract workers, but they are also far more than the average wages in Iraq. An October 2003 report from the US Labor Against the War reported, “Most workers get $60/month, a small percentage $120, and a tiny minority (mostly administrators and managers) $180.” Of course these Iraqi workers did not have to shell out the high fees to the sub-contractor to bring them to their worksite (an amount equivalent to ten months of their wages).

Compare this to the US workers who are in Iraq. A Houston Chronicle story (by Jenalia Moreno and Bill Hensel, April 14) on KBR-Halliburton contract workers, introduces us to Michael Tovar who is not unlike the men in George Iype’s story. A truck driver, Tovar signed up to work a twelve hour shift distributing fuel for a annual salary that will amount to “tens of thousands of dollars” more than his current truck driver salary of about $30,000 to $40,000.

Like the contract workers from Kerala, Tovar told the media that the main motivation for his journey was money. His wife and he would soon have a child, so despite the hardships of the work, “I’m going out there making a better future for her anyway.”

Halliburton called these American workers “courageous volunteers.” The Indian workers, like their brethren from the other darker nations who now labor in the basement of the US camps, have a different opinion of their own situation: as Peter Thomas told George Iype, “It is slavery there in the American camp.”

Four other workers leveled a very inflammatory charge that has not been publicly discussed in the US: when the workers in the US camp wanted to go home, they allege, the “American forces beat some of them up.” These workers, with their Abu Ghraib jobs, had become the chattel of those troops who have thus far monopolized the tears of the US media.

I have only seen one article in the US corporate media that has depicted the plight of the contract workers. On 1 July, the Washington Post ran a fine article by Ariana Eunjung Cha entitled “Underclass of Workers Created in Iraq: Many Foreign Laborers Receive Inferior Pay, Food and Shelter.” Halliburton (KBR) has eaten high on the government pork in Iraq, writes Cha, but “Its profits have come thanks to the hard work of people like Dharmapalan Ajayakumar, who until last month served as a kitchen helper at a military base.”

Ajaykumar’s allegations are confirmed by what so many contract workers from South Asia have been saying: that they are treated like second-class or third-class workers when compared to their US counterparts, that they were given substandard food and shelter, and that both Hindus and Muslims were forced to handle or eat beef and pork.

Just as the British army abandoned the Indian sepoys in Singapore when the city fell to the Japanese, when their camp in Iraq came under attack the US workers “came out in full protective gear and jumped into their cars,” whereas “the kitchen workers were told to stand outside near a tent in their pajamas.” Abdul Aziz Hamid, who also talked to George Iype of India Abroad, told Cha, “The attitude of the people was not friendly at all. We were doing a service for these people but they shouted at us and talked down to us.”

A Reuters story (August 6) reported on a group of Indian workers who had come to Arbil (northern Iraq) to repair electricity transmission lines. These workers did not work on the US bases, but they did live in contract labor camps that are a familiar sight in the farms of California or beside the “free trade zones” in Sri Lanka. Ten or so workers live in a small box, where the beds are always warm from being slept on in shifts.

Rather than despise them for taking their jobs, local Kurds express their sorrow at their pitiable condition. “They always walk the streets after work because they don’t have TVs or air-conditioning,” Putros Izhat, a baker, told the reporter. “It makes us feel sorry for them. They’re not taking our jobs. Kurds are in a good condition now and we don’t have to do this work.”

Iraq will now increasingly resemble the emirates south of it. Take Kuwait as an example, where of the 2.2 million people, the migrant workers total 1.5 million (or almost 70% of the population). Ray Jureidini of the American University of Beirut points out that “the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs become associated with foreign (Asian and African) workers to such a degree that nationals in these countries refuse to undertake them, despite high levels of poverty and unemployment.”

For the employers, the lack of any rights for the workers makes them not only easier to discipline with extra-economic techniques, but it also makes them beholden to the employer.

“Temporary employees,” Jureidini argues, “are normally legally attached to a sponsor/employer until the completion of an employment contract, at which time the employee is required to either receive a renewal of work permit or leave the country. Temporary workers who do leave their employers/sponsors (or attempt to run away) are rendered illegal and are subject to arrest and deportation.”

The lack of human rights for these migrants renders them quite powerless, and it also has the effect of reducing the value of the work that they do. Whereas in an earlier epoch, before 1977, the labor unions of Iraq had a strong history of revalorizing certain times of work and fighting for wages and power, the degradation of work in Iraq will have long term consequences.

The US military refused to investigate the allegation. They claim that if there is a problem then it should be dealt with by the contractor. KBR says that they have no cause to investigate anything, because the allegations are spurious: although they maintain that such conditions will not be condoned.

In other words, KBR and the US government are simply mimicking any other transnational firm that uses shell contractors who shield it from prosecution. KBR could very well send one of its spokespersons to the news media and channel Kathie Lee Gifford, “You can say I’m ugly. You can say I’m not talented, but when you say I don’t care about people?. How can you!”

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