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KBR Questioned on Labor Abuses in Iraq

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 7th, 2008

Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), the former subsidiary of Halliburton, announced today that it was buying Alabama-based BE&K for $500 million. For David Nash, the president of BE&K, and the man who was in charge of handing out reconstruction contracts in Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion in March 2003, there must be a sense of deja vu to now be employed by one of the biggest building companies working in Iraq.

David Nash spent over 33 years in the U.S. Navy, beginning in Vietnam and ending as the top engineer (he was Chief of Civil Engineers and Commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command). In late 2003, he was put in charge of the Iraq Program Management Office, most of whose contracts were disastrous failures either because of poor planning, supervision or because they were destroyed by insurgents. Much has been written about the failure of these projects by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and in Blood Money, an excellent book by T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times. The reports are still coming out; a report on Perini's power projects was published at the end of April 2008, which sadly cost the life of one of the auditors who was sent to find out why the project failed.

BE&K is no stranger to KBR: indeed BE&K was sub-contracted to build a temporary tent city after Hurricane Katrina to house 7,000 military personnel and others assisting in the disaster response. Both KBR and BE&K came under scrutiny for firing dozens of unionized electricians, many of them local residents who had their homes destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, in favor of lower-wage migrant workers. 

CorpWatch attended KBR's annual meeting today at the Houstonian hotel and met with William Utt, the company CEO, to ask him about the company's policy on the exploitation of migrant workers, particularly in Iraq, where the many sub-contractors employ at least 35,000 Third Country Nationals (largely from South and South East Asia)

Indeed these are the people who are responsible for KBR's boast that it has "served over 500 million meals, delivered 272 million pounds of mail, produced more than 7.5 billion gallons of potable water, transported more than 3.5 billion gallons of fuel, hosted more than 87 million patrons at MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) facilities, logged nearly 3.7 million miles transporting supplies and equipment for the military, and laundered 32 million bundles of laundry for the troops." And this work is set to continue far into the future - KBR has just been awarded a big chunk of the mammoth new $150 billion troop support contract in Iraq.

Utt told CorpWatch that his company followed the Federal Acquisition Regulations and paid their staff "world-scale wages".  When we noted to the assembled shareholders and the board of director that these wages were as low as $9 a day for cleaners and $20 a day for short-order cooks at the dining facilities we visited in April 2008, and that many of these workers paid as much as $4,000 to get these jobs in the first place, he acknowledged that he was aware of the problem.

But our question still remains, what are companies like KBR and BE&K going to actually do about their workers wages other than react and investigate?

We invite Utt and Nash to learn more about the labor conditions of workers in Iraq by reading some of our coverage of this matter on the last few years. Our trip to Iraq in April 2008 suggests that very little has changed for the men and women who cook the food and clean the toilets for the U.S, soldiers living in Iraq on contract to KBR, its competitors, and their sub-contractors.

Adding Insult to Injury

Non-CorpWatch articles

Lastly, but not least, we recommend an excellent film by Lee Wang: "Someone Else's War"