Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Workers from poor countries serve the 48th

Publisher Name: 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For tens of thousands of workers from poor countries in Asia, the war in Iraq has been a magnet for money. Lured by the chance to make a fast buck, men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have left the familiarity of their homelands to tough it out in the sands of Iraq.

They form a silent army of low-wage workers without which U.S. military bases in Iraq would come to a standstill. But life is vastly different for the Asian workers, known in military parlance as Third Country Nationals, than it is for the soldiers or American contractors they serve.

The Asians toil long hours for low wages and endure living conditions that have prompted some of their respective nations to address what they call human rights violations.

Sanjay Sharma of Nepal works in the dining hall at Camp Striker. Conditions and pay for foreign workers have been criticized by some of their countries.

At Camp Striker, which housed a majority of the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Brigade Combat Team, teams of Asian men clean the latrines and showers, fix electrical problems, cook the food in the chow hall and run the laundry, recreation facility and the local PX.

Importing workers

Most are employed by military contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, a Houston-based subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., and its various subcontractors.

Even though thousands of Iraqis are jobless, the U.S. military frowns on employing them on bases for fear of insurgent infiltration. Instead, companies with military contracts ship in Asian men, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, Thailand and the Philippines, to work on the bases at a fraction of the wages U.S. employees would ask.

In an area of Camp Striker called Mayberry, the scent of sandalwood wafted from a series of congested trailers. Outside one of the trailers, racks of well-worn shoes and grimy sandals lined the doorway. Inside, a dozen men fell to their knees in prayer in front of a shrine to Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed god of success.

It was success that Ganesh Sharkar - named after the very god to whom he was praying - was seeking when he decided to join 3 million other Indians already working in the Middle East.

The son of a poor farmer from the eastern Indian district of Nadia, Sharkar made his way to the Middle East through a labor recruiting agency in Mumbai. He had no idea he would end up in a war zone.

He was taken first to Oman, then to Dubai, where, he said, he was finally told that the job that awaited him was really in Iraq. By then, he had signed a contract and had no choice but to accept - he had given his life savings to the agents who sent him overseas.

"They didn't tell me the job was here. But what are beggars to do?" said Sharkar, 30, speaking in his native Bengali. "All of us have the same dream. Money."

'What can I do?'

The workers said they make between $550 and $1,000 a month, depending on the job. Sharkar draws $650 a month after eight months in Iraq. He spends 12 hours a day fixing electrical problems in tents and trailers. Though that's an attractive salary for rural India, Sharkar has barely made enough to pay off what he owed the recruiting agency - more than $2,000 - and make sure his extended family at home is sufficiently supported. In August, he said his employer, KBR subcontractor Prime Projects International, was several months behind on a paycheck.

Sharkar, like other workers at Striker, said he is allowed to take only one day off a month. When he does, it is without pay.

He shares a cramped trailer with a dozen other men in Mayberry, an enclave reserved for KBR and PPI employees. Some have had their passports confiscated, though Sharkar managed to hold on to his. He cannot eat at the same dining facility as the soldiers - his food is shipped in from Camp Victory and is often cold and tasteless.

Sharkar is not allowed to use the Internet trailer, the phone center or the recreation facility. He has little contact with home.

Amit Kumar of Nepal serves lunch to Sgt. Charles Cloud of Lithia Springs in the dining hall at Camp Striker.

He has no medical insurance and often begs workers with contacts in Baghdad to buy him medicine he needs. He has no body armor or helmet, even though military bases regularly come under attack.

"I don't like it here, but what can I do?" Sharkar said.

Indian newspapers have written repeatedly of alleged abuse of their workers in Iraq with such headlines as "U.S. slave camps."

CorpWatch, a globalization watchdog group based in San Francisco, claims on its Web site that TCNs in Iraq are mistreated and make extremely low wages compared to American employees of Halliburton and KBR, who often top $100,000 a year.

Recommended wage scale

KBR supervisors at Striker would not comment on the Asians. They referred questions to Nikki Wheeler, a company spokeswoman in Iraq, who said via e-mail that the company employs 40,000 people from 30 nations to support U.S. and coalition forces. She said KBR could would not discuss salaries or working conditions.

"It would be inappropriate to discuss the 'average salary paid' because as with any company, an employee's rate of pay is commensurate with their experience and the value they bring to the position," Wheeler wrote in her e-mail.

"Our compensation packages and the compensation packages provided by our subcontractors are based on a wage scale that was recommended by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and are competitive. Additionally, KBR's subcontractors are required to comply with all local labor laws and provisions and must be competitive in order to recruit and retain qualified personnel."

Wheeler added that KBR does employ Iraqis at a number of project sites and "strives to maximize local participation whenever possible. It merits mentioning," she said, "that in some cases the military restricts our ability to bring Iraqis on to some sites."

In May, Filipino employees went on strike against PPI and KBR at Camp Taji to protest poor working conditions and low wages. The Manila Times reported that the dispute was eventually settled with the intervention of Filipino diplomats.

The Philippines, India and Nepal have officially barred their citizens from seeking jobs in Iraq because of the danger.

Still, poor people keep coming to Iraq with a dream of striking it rich.

Money a big lure

Roderick Osbual, 23, left the rice paddies of Lusan, Philippines, behind so he would not have to be a farmer like his father. He quit college, where he was getting a degree in education to become a schoolteacher, and instead sought out a labor recruiting agent who sent him to Iraq.

He has been at Camp Striker since June 2004. After a variety of jobs, Osbual landed behind the counter at the laundry, where he always greets soldiers with a smile. PPI pays him $700 a month. When he takes a day off, he forfeits pay.

"That's OK with me," he said. "I need my rest."

Osbual said he doesn't like the way Asian workers are treated by contractors or the soldiers.

"I don't like the term TCN. It's degrading," he said. "The Americans, they look at us differently."

In the evenings, Hindi music blares from the Indian trailer while the Filipinos watch soap operas from home. The workers live among their own countrymen since language can be a barrier.

Osbual said he will likely stay in Iraq for another year. Half his salary goes into a Filipino bank account. The rest goes to his parents and a twin brother who is struggling to pay for college.

The work is boring, but Osbual is making twice what he would in his homeland.

"It's simply a matter of money. That's all," he said.

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