Desperate Nepal Workers in the U.S. Warzone: Lied To, Ripped Off, and Worked Like Slaves in Iraq
Revolution #024, November 27, 2005, posted at revcom.us
19-year-old Ramesh Khadka's family took out a loan of more than $2,000 in the belief that his son would become a cook in Jordan. But instead, Ramesh became one of 12 Nepalese workers who were executed by Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq on August 31, 2004. The Morning Star Company, a Jordan-based services firm, had contracted Ramesh and the others for jobs. The grisly murder of the men, shown on videotape, led to investigations that revealed a whole illicit pipeline of cheap foreign labor that is part of the U.S. war in Iraq.
Private military companies (PMCs) contribute as much as 20 percent of the total U.S.-led occupation force, and at least 35 PMCs have contracts in Iraq--employing at least 5,000 heavily armed foreign mercenaries and over 20,000 Iraqis. Another 10,000 to 15,000 people, hired from all over the world, provide military logistical support such as driving, maintenance, training, communications, and intelligence-gathering. The largest contractor is... you guessed it, Halliburton.
The US government outsources to Halliburton's KBR, which outsources to 200 subcontractors, which recruit thousands of workers from impoverished countries. This multi-layered system cuts costs and creates walls of deniability for the US government and Halliburton. US law calls for sanctions against countries that engage in human trafficking but in September 2005, Bush, citing Kuwait's and Saudi Arabia's efforts in the "Global War on Terror," waived the sanctions against them
The pay for such workers ranges from $65 to $112 weekly. In Nepal the per capita (average per person) annual income is about $270! The Nepalese government relies on an estimated $1 billion sent home each year by citizens working overseas.
A recent two-part investigative series in the Chicago Tribune (Cam Simpson and Aamer Madhani, October 9-10, 2005) explained how a village agent recruited twelve Nepalese men and turned them over to a broker who sent them to Amman, Jordan. It was only then that some of them learned they were really destined for Iraq. While being transported to an American air base northwest of Baghdad in an unprotected van, they were kidnapped and killed.
When the Nepalese men realized they were about to be shipped to their likely deaths in Iraq, many called their families in a panic, desperate to go home. The Jordanian brokers were demanding they surrender two months' pay as a fee and accept less than half the salary they were promised in Nepal. Their families, who had borrowed money to pay a Nepalese broker $3,500 for each man, could not pay the ransom the contractors demanded, and told them they had to go to work in Iraq to cover the loans.
Slave Labor Camp Conditions
David Pinney from CorpWatch has written about the conditions of these workers ("Using Asias Poor to Build U.S. bases in Iraq" truthout.org, October 3, 2005). He says, "Third Country Nationals (TCNs) frequently sleep in crowded trailers and wait outside in line in 100-degree-plus heat to eat 'slop.' Many are said to lack adequate medical care and put in hard labor seven days a week, ten hours or more a day, for little or no overtime pay. Few receive proper workplace safety equipment or adequate protection from incoming mortars and rockets. When frequent gunfire, rockets, and mortar shell from the ongoing conflict hits the sprawling military camps, American contractors slip on helmets and bulletproof vests, but TCNs are frequently shielded only by the shirts on their backs and the flimsy trailers they sleep in."
One former KBR supervisor, Sharon Reynolds, who spent 11 months in Iraq, says one time the TCNs didnt get paid for four months, didnt get sick pay or proper shoes and clothing. She said, "It looked like a concentration camp."
Ramil Autencio, signed with MGM Worldwide Manpower and General Services in the Philippines. Autencio thought he was going to work at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month. But he ended up in Iraq working 11 hours a day moving boulders to fortify the U.S. camps, first at camp Anaconda and then at Tikrit. Autencio says, "We ate when the Americans had leftovers from their meals. If not, we didnt eat at all." In February 2004, Autencio escaped with dozens of others.
In May of 2005 the BBC reported that around 300 Filipino workers went on strike at a U.S. military base in Baghdad, protesting their working conditions. They were joined by 500 other workers from India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to protest working conditions and pay.
Preying on Desperate Lives
Contractors and recruiters prey upon poor peasants and workers in Nepal who are desperate and have no way to support their families. And this cold-blooded business in the trafficking of human labor is huge. In August 2004, when the 12 Nepalese workers were kidnapped and executed, the Kathmandu Post reported that thousands of Nepalese had been entering Iraq via Kuwait, Jordan and UAE, that 17,000 Nepalese workers were already in Iraq and 35,000 others were waiting to go.
In the video footage sent by the men's kidnappers to Nepals Foreign Ministry, eight of the men blamed the contracting agency for deceiving them about where they were going. When news that the men had been executed reached Nepal, people took to the streets in rage. Rioters attacked the offices of Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and other airlines that transport workers overseas. Looters attacked the headquarters of Moon Light--the labor contractor--and 350 other agencies were also attacked.
The dead men's families each received about $14,000 from the Nepalese government--much of which they had to use to cover the loans taken out to pay the job brokers.
The Maoist People's War in Nepal now controls 80 percent of the countryside. In the revolutionary stronghold of Rolpa, the guerrillas have mobilized tens of thousands of people to build a much-needed roadway, to be known as Martyrs Highway. Various bourgeois journalists have cynically said this is nothing but forced labor. They can't comprehend how people would walk for days to do volunteer work and that some people would do this, even though the road is not even routed through their village. And they have no understanding of how for poor peasants living in extremely backward conditions, such a road is so important. Meanwhile, in Iraq, thousands of Nepalese workers are experiencing real slave labor conditions--laboring under vicious conditions for the U.S. occupation forces.