Most of First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting's early business in Iraq was as a leading subcontractor to Halliburton/KBR. The Houston, Texas firm had won multibillion Army logistics contracts to build US military camps around Iraq.
To handle the exploding work load and increase its profits following the March 2003 invasion, First Kuwaiti rushed to hire low-wage workers from South Asia for the lucrative construction contracts. Today, as one of the Pentagon's larger "body shops," First Kuwaiti employs 7,500 laborers for the nearly $2 billion in US contracts it has signed over the past three years.
But the boom in business has not been without controversy. Some of those workers as well as the news media have repeatedly accused First Kuwaiti of coercing recruits to go to Iraq against their will, and once in Iraq, of providing them with substandard housing, food and medical care.
Ramil Autencio and other Filipinos who worked for First Kuwaiti in late 2003 and early 2004 said that they experienced the bad conditions first hand after the company strong-armed them into working on a US military base in Tikrit, Iraq.
"They forcibly brought me to Iraq when my contract provided that I would work in Kuwait," Autencio claimed in an October 3, 2005, CorpWatch story.
Originally recruited for employment by MGM Worldwide Manpower in the Philippines, Autencio said he had planned to work at Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month. Then, when he reached Kuwait in late 2003, he discovered that MGM had sold his recruitment contract to First Kuwaiti.
That's when he and other Filipinos found themselves cooped up in First Kuwaiti housing in Kuwait for a month without pay or adequate food as they awaited transfer to Iraq, he said. "They threatened to put us in prison and they took everything we had, including our passports. The police would arrest us if we went out."
Once in Tikrit, Autencio and others claimed they were overworked, served poor food, and received less salary than their contracts stipulated.
Such stories of mistreatment prompted the U.S. State Department to join forces with the Defense Department early this year to investigate possible labor trafficking by Middle East firms working under US contracts in Iraq.
When first asked about mistreatment of the company's labor force in August 2005, First Kuwaiti general manager Wadih al Absi threatened to sue if the allegations were published. Al-Absi, whose excellent English is occasionally peppered with the bluntness of a construction worker, denied the allegations of ill-treatment and labor trafficking in August 2005.
"It's bullshit," he said, after emailing electronic documents apparently signed by Autencio and others agreeing to work in Iraq. "Total bullshit."
Al-Absi also threatened to sue for libel if the allegations were published.
Still, Autencio does not back down from his story. "All the contracts I had referred to Kuwait," he said. "They pushed me into Iraq when they opened jobs there."
Once in Iraq, Autencio said that conditions became horrid that he and a group of 46 Filipinos decided to escape Iraq by hitching rides from Filipino truckers and with the help of another Filipino serving in the US Army. Traveling by night, they reached Kuwait in three days.
"The Kuwait police couldn't do anything because we outnumbered them," Autencio said. "We shoved them back when they asked for our papers. We were bolder because one of us had died by then."
The men then sought refuge in the Philippines Embassy before returning home.
Autencio's charges are echoed by a group of Nepalese migrant workers.
On Sept. 7, 2004, The Kathmandu Post reported that four-dozen Nepalese workers who had been waiting in Kuwait for jobs on American military bases in Iraq abruptly changed their minds when they saw television reports of Iraqi insurgents executing 12 Nepalese hostages.
"I was scared," Krishna Bahadur Khadka told the newspaper.
"We fled from where we were staying and sent a fax to the Nepali Embassy in Saudi Arabia asking for help," he said. "On September 4 Mitra Singh, a Nepali settled in Kuwait, came to our rescue."
The Chicago Tribune corroborated that account in an Oct. 10, 2005 story, saying that a First Kuwaiti manager in Kuwait handed the panicked Nepalese workers an ultimatum: Go to Iraq to fulfill the contracts or be released on the streets of Kuwait City to fend for yourselves.
Undoubtedly, none had the resources to find their way back to Nepal.
"The company was forcing them to go to Iraq," Lok Bahadur Thapa, the former acting Nepalese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told The Tribune.
Both the Pentagon and the US State Department have not commented on whether or not these allegations were ever investigated. Certainly, First Kuwaiti has never been suspended from receiving US government contracts in Iraq or elsewhere.
Washington, DC-based journalist David Phinney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.