San Francisco Chronicle: Migrants trade poverty for danger

Publisher Name: 
The San Francisco Chronicle

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 So far, the small Philippine military contingent has been withdrawn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."

AMP Section Name:Corpwatch in the News