IRAQ: Do Africans Recruited for Security Jobs Get Compensation for Injury or Death?

Shabby treatment of non-US citizens killed while working for firms contracted by the US government seems to be the norm. The right information is sometimes as rare as desert rain - especially if one does not know who his or her employer is.

Do Africans recruited for high-risk security jobs in Iraq get insurance compensation in the event of injury or death? The answer should be a straight forward, "yes", according to a US law known as Defense Base Act (DBA).

The law states that anyone working for a US government agency or for a company working for the US government anywhere in the world is entitled to DBA compensation. This includes foreign nationals who are not US citizens. The amount paid as death benefits is "two-thirds of average weekly earnings for two or more eligible survivors up to the current maximum rate of $1,047.16 per week."

On paper, it sounds good. In reality, however, it is a lot more complicated. According to Mr. Richard V. Robilotti, District Director, US Department of Labor, New York Office, in spite of what the law requires, some companies that employ foreign nationals may neglect to report the injuries or deaths of employees.

"If no-one reports the incident to DOL, and the family does not file a claim, we have no way of knowing what has happened," he said. The system, in other words, is totally based on the transparency and honesty of the contracting firm to do what the law says it must do.

What is more, as suggested last week in this column, in the security contracting business, the right information is sometimes as rare as desert rain - and that includes information about compensation especially if one does not know who his or her employer is. Take for instance the report this past weekend in the New Vision that 100 Ugandan recruits quietly boarded a Middle East bound flight from Entebbe Airport to Dubai, headed for security jobs in Iraq.

A Kampala lawyer named Bob Kasango of Hall Partners claimed that he had been contracted by the Nevada-based Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc (SOC-SMG) to recruit the men for non-combat duties in Iraq. However, when contacted on Sunday, SOC-SMG personnel Janelle Lehmann denied that the company is recruiting in Uganda.

When pressed, she only said, "To my knowledge, SOC-SMG has not recruited in Africa because the company recruits mostly in the USA." So what happens should any of the Uganda young men get seriously injured or die in Iraq? According to Kasango, each recruit is entitled to $300,000 for injuries, and in the event of death, "the next of kin gets $1m". Yet, the mention of that amount of insurance money drew a snort from Katy Helvenston-Wettengel.

She is the mother of Scott Helvenston, 38, one of the four security contractors, and a former Navy SEAL whose gruesome killing in Falluja in March 2004 sparked international outrage. Speaking to the New Vision from Leesburg, Florida, Mrs. Helvenston-Wettengel said her son's death demonstrated lack of accountability by the private security industry in general, and Blackwater in particular.

"Blackwater sent Scotty with substandard equipment to do a deadly job, not even giving his team a map of the area they were supposed to be working in," she said.

The family is suing Blackwater for breach of contract in North Carolina. According to the soft-spoken Helvenston-Wettengel, her daughter-in-law Patricia Irby and two grandchildren Kyle and Kelsey did not receive a million dollar lump-sum insurance settlement. Instead, the family is receiving the weekly compensation calculated as a percentage of the salary that Helvenston was receiving before he went to work for Blackwater in Iraq.

"The amount is mere pittance for the family to survive on - and I would suggest that the family of an African killed in Iraq would get next to nothing from the insurance companies." The shabby treatment of non-US citizens killed while working for firms contracted by the US government seems to be the norm.

In the case of Jacques "Oosie" Oosthuize, a South African security guard killed while working for Erinys Security on May 3 between Tikrit and Mosul, no report of death had been made to the US Department of Labor.

By print time, it was not clear whether the dead man's family had received any compensation at all. Meanwhile, uncertainty about insurance compensation hangs like a dark cloud over the Fijian families of security guards Jim Atalifo, 48, a former Fijian police officer and Timoci Lalaqila, 34, killed when a Blackwater helicopter was shot down near Baghdad last month.

Contacted in Suva by this reporter, widow Ledua Atalifo said she was not sure about compensation, and had never heard about DBA compensation.

"The insurance people say we will get $100,000 Fiji dollars (about U $60,000), but we don't know whether this is what they will eventually give us," added her brother Inoke Cama who spoke guardedly for fear that talking to a reporter might jeopardise future insurance claims.

The bottom line for African security personnel taking up jobs in Iraq is that death could come swiftly with no reprieve -but most important, put your financial affairs in order because your bereaved family may never see a penny in compensation.

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