IRAQ: Caught in Trafficking

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service News Agency

Trained as an
air conditioning repairman and technician, Ramil Autencio says his
recruiter in the Philippines agreed to place him in a two-year job at
the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for 450 dollars a month -- maybe more
with overtime.

But when he arrived at the Kuwait airport in December 2003,
Autencio says he was quickly shuttled to a rundown three-story building
managed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a Kuwaiti
firm doing a booming multi-million-dollar business with the U.S.
military and the Pentagon's primary support contractor Kellogg Brown
and Root.

To date, the company has billed the U.S. government perhaps 2
billion dollars for work in Iraq, including the 592-million-dollar U.S.
embassy in Baghdad now nearing completion.

There were no more jobs at the hotel, Autencio was told, and because
the recruiter only processed him for a one-month travel visa, he was
told he could not stay in Kuwait. Autencio said First Kuwaiti offered
him one of three options: pay a 1,000-dollar penalty and work in Kuwait
for free for six months; be arrested and jailed; or work for the
company in Iraq.

As he weighed these choices, he would live in the building
with 800 other Filipinos where, at first, there were no mattresses or
blankets. They ate only chicken and rice under the crumbling ceilings.
Because Autencio had worked in Kuwait before, he says he was able to
borrow cooking utensils from supportive Filipinos in Kuwait aware of
their plight.

"A jail would be better," Autencio recalled. "We were ordered to go...They forcibly brought us to Iraq."

Autencio says he ended up living a wartime nightmare, pushing
boulders 11 hours a day, seven days a week for a contractor fortifying
a U.S. military camp in Tikrit.

Showers to wash off the day's sweat were an uncertainty, and in the
chilly January and February nights of 2004, he and seven other
Filipinos would live in an empty truck container with no windows, sleep
on cardboard boxes, and eat leftovers and meals-ready-to-eat from

The sounds of crackling gunfire and crashing incoming mortars
would wake the workers at all hours of the night and the unfortified
trailer would tremble and shake from nearby rocket blasts.

Former supervisors with First Kuwaiti who have since left the company
call the three-story building where Ramil and the 800 Filipinos awaited
their jobs in Iraq "Jaleeb".

"They would lock them in without documents -- no passports or
IDs," recalled one longtime supervisor. "The building was so crowded,
you could barely breathe." Many say one Filipino lost his mind and died
while Autencio was there.

Another supervisor agreed the building was "a mess," and said after much urging, it was cleaned up sometime in 2006.

First Kuwaiti's general manager, Wadih Al-Absi, has
consistently denied that his company would ever endorse such
recruitment practices. In numerous conversations, he has said that
First Kuwaiti never pressured workers to go to Iraq or violated
international visa requirements. During one meeting in Washington in
September 2005, he said that people envied his company's success, which
thrived under U.S. contracts in Iraq.

"People will never criticise someone who fails," he said.

Al-Absi also flatly accused Autencio of lying. His proof is a
working agreement, purportedly signed by Autencio before leaving the
Philippines. Although Al-Absi admitted that unscrupulous recruitment
agencies do sometimes misrepresent jobs and take money from people
eager to work, he provided Autencio's undated contract with First
Kuwaiti that identified the job site as both Kuwait and "mainly" Iraq.

The agreement also lays out salary: 346 dollars a month for
eight-hour days, seven days a week, plus 104 dollars a month for
mandatory two hours overtime every day.

However, despite Al-Absi's protests of innocence, the
Philippine government placed First Kuwaiti on a "Watch List" in June
2005 as a warning to the company to comply with worker contracts.
Al-Absi said he was unaware of that action.

One frequent complaint among Filipino workers is that they are issued
tourist visas when traveling to the Middle East for work, a Philippine
official explained. Such visas prevent them from getting the jobs they
planned to have and they then have few options but to take work in

First Kuwaiti placed a job order with the Philippine Overseas
Employment Administration in November 2003 for more than 700 workers,
according to the official. Only 41 of those jobs were listed for Iraq,
while the remainder was advertised as being in Kuwait.

One former First Kuwaiti logistics manager who processed
workers said he witnessed the company send more than 500 Philippine
labourers into Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 to work on the construction
of U.S. military camps.

Because of allegations of labour trafficking and other abuses,
First Kuwaiti is also being investigated by the U.S. Justice
Department, an action precipitated by U.S. citizens claiming that
company workers loaded onto planes in Kuwait were handed boarding
passes for Dubai before flying directly to Baghdad. The passengers were
mostly low-wage Asian migrant labourers earning as little as 250
dollars a month.

The U.S. State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard recently
investigated similar allegations of trafficking and worker abuse in
September 2006. After a brief site review of First Kuwaiti's work at
the U.S. embassy project in Baghdad, Krongard stated flatly noted in a
nine-page memorandum posted on the State Department's Web site that
"Nothing came to our attention."

However, an addendum inspection by the Multi-National Force
inspector general in Baghdad did find after interviewing a total of 36
workers that many reported deceptive hiring practices by recruitment
agencies in their home countries.

Krongard's office admitted this week that First Kuwaiti was given a three-month notice before his inspection.

In April 2006, the Pentagon confirmed in a new contracting
order that an investigation of U.S.-funded contractors in Iraq found
significant evidence of deceptive hiring practices, excessive
recruiting fees indebting workers for months if not years, substandard
living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food,
and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures. It also noted
that the passports were illegally confiscated by employers and the lack
of mandatory "awareness training" in labour trafficking.

"Leaders must understand the dynamics and indicators of
trafficking and be vigilant in correcting and reporting suspected
violations or activities," the Pentagon stressed in the contracting

No company or contractor is named in the Pentagon's findings.
Nor has the U.S. government publicly penalised or prosecuted any
U.S.-funded contractor in Iraq for labour trafficking and abuse.

The U.S. State Department recently awarded some 200 million
dollars in new contracts to First Kuwaiti for embassy work in Africa,
India and Indonesia. The company also is said to be competing for a new
U.S. embassy project in Lebanon.

Autencio's story is now featured in the documentary "Someone Else's
War," now circulating in the Philippines and at U.S. film festivals,
and the Philippines is again reviewing First Kuwaiti's association with
job recruiters.

AMP Section Name:Labor
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