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San Francisco Chronicle: Migrants trade poverty for danger

by Robert CollierThe San Francisco Chronicle
August 5th, 2004

In their attempt to undermine the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq, insurgents are homing in on a vulnerable new target -- the fast-growing number of blue-collar foreign workers who are fleeing poverty at home in search of relatively high wages in Iraq.

But the near-daily spectacle of foreigners paraded in front of cameras by masked men has succeeded in making only a small dent in the U.S.-led mission in Iraq. So far, the small Philippine military contingent has been withdrawn and the Turkish trucking industry has agreed to stop hauling cargo in Iraq, as have transport firms from several other nations.

For the most part, the kidnappings are inadvertently highlighting one of the biggest strengths of the U.S.-led reconstruction campaign. Analysts say the unending supply of foreign blue-collar workers willing to risk their lives for money virtually guarantees that the rebuilding will not collapse, no matter how much the country crumbles amid political and military chaos.

"Will this violence stop the flow of migrant workers to Iraq? I think not, " said Virginia Sherry, associate director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch and author of a recent study on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

She noted that Iraq is just the latest destination for foreign workers in the Persian Gulf region, where an estimated 10 million migrants from South Asia, the Philippines and other low-income regions hold the vast majority of low-wage jobs, often in highly exploitative conditions.

"It's economic desperation that drives these migrants abroad," Sherry said. "Truck drivers, cooks, maintenance guys -- they have no prospect of being employed in their Indian village or in the slums of Manila. They know that working in the gulf can mean incredible abuse and dangers, but they keep coming."

In Iraq, tens of thousands of migrant workers -- no one knows exactly how many -- hold strategic yet low-ranking positions with the U.S. military and its contractors, ranging from truck driver to construction supervisor to cook and service worker on U.S. bases.

Hiring Iraqis for these positions is considered a security risk because insurgents could infiltrate the workforce, as they have done on at least a few occasions with the new Iraqi police and army. Foreigners, especially those from non-Arab nations, are viewed as impervious to guerrilla recruiting efforts, despite the fact that al Qaeda is thought to have offshoots in many of the workers' native countries, such as the Philippines and Pakistan.

In an attempt to weaken U.S. logistics and hamper reconstruction efforts, militants have abducted more than 70 foreigners since April, mostly truckers traveling with little or no armed escort. The killing of a Turkish driver on Monday raised the number of foreigners killed to nine during that period.

The kidnappings multiplied after the Philippines withdrew its 51 troops from Iraq to save the life of Angelo dela Cruz, who was released July 21. U.S. officials have warned against any new defections among its military coalition partners.

"These are killers and murderers who are killing innocent people who have come to Iraq to help the Iraqi people to a better life," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Baghdad on Friday, answering a question about the kidnappings and beheadings. "There is nothing romantic about this. There is nothing justified about this. These are murderous acts, they are terrorist acts, and the world must stand united. We cannot allow this kind of activity to deter us or to cause us to go off course."

Many analysts point out that the recent influx of migrant workers simply marks a return to the norm for Iraq. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein brought in large numbers of foreign laborers to work on such construction projects as a 200-mile agricultural drainage canal, dubbed Saddam River. Immediately before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein expelled 700,000 Egyptians. Most other immigrants left during the economic crisis in the 1990s triggered by U.N. sanctions.

Elsewhere in the oil-rich gulf region, where many local citizens are rich and disdain low-level jobs, governments have simply imported an entire working class. In Kuwait, for example, foreigners make up 65 percent of the population, occupying an estimated 90 to 95 percent of private-sector jobs, according to U.S. intelligence statistics. In the United Arab Emirates, 63 percent of the population is foreign, and even in Saudi Arabia, the figure is 33 percent. In Iraq, the sky-high costs of private security, wages and insurance premiums are leading many contractors to switch from American workers to citizens of poor nations. While an American truck driver in Iraq typically earns as much as $10, 000 per month and is protected by a phalanx of heavily armed private security guards, a driver from India or Pakistan typically earns as little as $500 per month and often has little or no armed security.

"There are different calculations made about security, which means different levels of protection, white-collar versus blue-collar, Western versus non-Western," said Peter Singer, an analyst of the private-security industry at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"It's not just who gets the personal security detail, but how much is spent on protection of the car or truck they're driving. Whether they get an armored SUV with the highest protection, Level 6, all the way down to nothing at all. These may be decisions about whether people live or die, but they are still business decisions," Singer said.

U.S. federal law requires all government contractors and subcontractors that are headquartered in the United States to obtain workers' compensation insurance for civilian employees who work overseas, but it does not require any coverage for employees of foreign companies, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-run group in New York. Insurance charges average 30 percent of payroll, the institute says. Together with security costs, which U.S. officials have estimated at 25 percent of overall project costs, this overhead is likely to eat up an unexpectedly large chunk of the $18.6 billion aid package passed by Congress last year.

"Using workers from the United States or the West raises costs incredibly, " Nesreen Berwari, Iraq's minister of municipalities and public works, said in an interview last month. "This is a main reason why much less has been accomplished than many people expected."

Some analysts say that this cost differential is likely to increase the recruitment of workers from a broad swath of poor countries, from the Philippines to Kenya.

"I think people are starting to worry about the danger of working in Iraq. But especially in the South Asian community, the rewards for them (in Iraq) are much higher proportionately than for American workers, so they will keep coming," said Pratap Chatterjee, director of CorpWatch, a liberal activist group in Oakland, who investigated the working conditions of migrant workers during a recent trip to Iraq. "They are incredibly desperate to get out of their countries and generate $200 a month to send back to their families."

With Iraq's unemployment rate estimated at 30 percent, many Iraqis wonder why foreigners are being imported for jobs that locals could take. A political backlash has started in recent months, with street demonstration by jobless Iraqis in Baghdad and other cities.

"Iraqis are being used mostly for menial jobs, unskilled, like construction crews, but nothing more," Chatterjee said. "Iraqis see that, and they're perfectly skilled to do most of the jobs that the contractors are doing, so they're going to be angry. They have no jobs, no food, but lots of weapons."

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