A U.S. Fortress Rises in Baghdad:
Asian Workers Trafficked to Build World's Largest Embassy
David Phinney, Special to CorpWatch
John Owen didn't realize how different his job would be from his last 27
years in construction until he signed on with First Kuwaiti Trading &
Contracting in November 2005. Working as general foreman, he would be
overseeing an army of workers building the largest, most expensive and
heavily fortified US embassy in the world. Scheduled to open in 2007, the
sprawling complex near the Tigris River will equal Vatican City in size.
Then seven months into the job, he quit.
Not one of the five different US embassy sites he had worked on around the
world compared to the mess he describes. Armenia, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon
and Cambodia all had their share of dictators, violence and economic
disruption, but the companies building the embassies were always fair and
professional, he says. The Kuwait-based company building the $592-million
Baghdad project is the exception.
Brutal and inhumane, he says "I've never
seen a project more fucked up. Every US labor law was broken."
In the resignation letter last June, Owen told First Kuwaiti and US State
Department officials that his managers beat their construction workers,
demonstrated little regard for worker safety, and routinely breached
Pentagon Finds Worker Abuse and Trafficking in Iraq, but Penalizes No One.
On April 4, 2006, the Pentagon issued a new contracting directive following
a secret investigation that officially confirms what many South Asian
laborers have been complaining about ever since the March 2003 invasion of
Iraq. Some contractors, many working as subcontractors to Halliburton /KBR
in Iraq, were found to be using deceptive, bait-and-switch hiring practices
and charging recruiting fees that indebted low-paid migrant workers for many
months or even years to their employers. Contractors were also accused of
providing substandard, crowded sleeping quarters, serving poor food, and
circumventing Iraqi immigration procedures.
While the Pentagon declines to specifically name those contractors found to
be doing business in this way, it also acknowledged in an April 19
memorandum that it was a widespread practice among contractors in Iraq and
Afghanistan to take away workers passports. Holding onto employee passports
-- a direct violation of US labor trafficking laws -- helped stop workers
from leaving war-torn Iraq or taking better jobs with other contractors.
Contractors engaging in the practice, states the memo, must immediately
"cease and deist."
"All passports will be returned to employees by 1 May 06. This requirement
will be flowed down to each of your subcontractors performing work in this
The Pentagon has yet to announce of any penalty for those found to be in
violation of US labor trafficking laws or contract requirements.
And it was all happening smack in the middle of the US-controlled Green Zone
-- right under the nose of the State Department that had quietly awarded the
controversial embassy contract in July 2005.
He also complained of poor sanitation, squalid living conditions and medical
malpractice in the labor camps where several thousand low-paid migrant
workers lived. Those workers, recruited on the global labor market from the
Philippines, India, Pakistan and other poor south Asian countries, earned as
little as $10 to $30 a day.
As with many US-funded contractors, First Kuwaiti prefers importing labor
because it views Iraqi workers as a security headache not worth the trouble.
No Questions Asked
By March 2005, First Kuwaiti?s operation began looking even sketchier to
Owen as he boarded a nondescript white jet on his way back to Baghdad
following some R&R in Kuwait city. He remembers being surrounded by about 50
First Kuwaiti laborers freshly hired from the Philippines and India.
Everyone was holding boarding passes to Dubai ? not to Baghdad.
"I thought there was some sort of mix up and I was getting on the wrong
plane," says the 48-year-old Floridian who once worked as a fisherman with
his father before moving into the construction business.
He buttonholed a First Kuwaiti manager standing near by and asked what was
going on. The manager waved his hand, looked around the terminal and
whispered to keep quiet.
"'If anyone hears we are going to Baghdad, they won?t let us on the plane,?"
Owen recalls the manager saying.
The secrecy struck Owen as a little odd, but he grabbed his luggage and
moved on. Everyone filed out to the private jet and flew directly to
"I figured that they had visas for Kuwait and not Iraq," Owen
The deception had the appearance of smuggling workers into Iraq, but Owen
didn?t know at the time that the Philippines, India, and other countries had
banned or restricted their citizens from working in Iraq because of safety
concerns and fading support for the war. After 2004, many passports were
stamped "Not valid for Iraq."
Nor did Owen know that both the US State Department and the Pentagon were
quietly investigating contractors such as First Kuwaiti for labor
trafficking and worker abuse. In fact, the international news media had
accused First Kuwaiti repeatedly of coercing workers to take jobs in
battle-torn Iraq once they had been lured with safer offers to Kuwait.
company has billed several billion dollars on US contracts since the war
began in March 2003 and now has an estimated 7,500 laborers in the theater
Despite numerous emails and phone calls about such allegations, neither
First Kuwaiti general manager Wadih Al Absi nor his lawyer Angela Styles,
the former top White House contract policy advisor, have responded.
year of requests, State Department officials involved with the project also
have ignored or rejected opportunities for comment.
Your Passports Please
That same March Owen returned to work in Baghdad, Rory Mayberry would
witness similar events after he flew to Kuwait from his home in Myrtle
The gravely voiced, easy-going Army veteran had previously worked in Iraq
for Halliburton and the private security company, Danubia. Missing the
action and the big paychecks US contractors draw Iraq, he snagged a $10,000
a month job with MSDS consulting Company.
MSDS is a two-person minority-owned consulting company that assists US State
Department managers in Washington with procurement programming. Never before
had the firm offered medical services or worked in Iraq, but First Kuwaiti
hired MSDS on the recommendation of Jim Golden, the State Department
contract official overseeing the embassy project.
Within days, an agreement
worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical care was signed.
The 45-year-old Mayberry, a former emergency medical technician in the Army
who worked as a funeral director in Oregon, responded to a help wanted ad
placed by MSDS. The plan was that he would work as a medic attending to the
construction crews on the work site in Baghdad.
Mayberry sensed things weren't right when he boarded a First Kuwaiti flight
on March 15 to Baghdad, a different flight from Owen's.
At the airport in Kuwait City, Mayberry said, he saw a person behind a
counter hand First Kuwaiti managers a passenger manifest, an envelope of
money and a stack of boarding passes to Dubai. The managers then handed out
the boarding passes to Mayberry and 50 or so new First Kuwaiti laborers,
"Everyone was told to tell customs and security that they were flying to
Dubai," Mayberry explains.
Once the group passed the guards, they went
upstairs and waited by the McDonald's for First Kuwaiti staff to unlock a
door -- Gate 26 -- that led to an unmarked, white 52-seat jet. It was "an
antique piece of shit" Mayberry offers in a casual, blunt manner.
"All the workers had their passports taken away by First Kuwaiti," Mayberry
claims, and while he knew the plane was bound for Baghdad, he's not so sure
the others were aware of their destination. The Asian laborers began asking
questions about why they were flying north and the jet wasn't flying east
over the ocean, he says. "I think they thought they were going to work in
One former First Kuwaiti supervisor acknowledges that the company holds
passports of many workers in Iraq, a violation of US contracting.
"All of the passports are kept in the offices," said one company insider who
requested anonymity in fear of financial and personal retribution.
distributing Dubai boarding passes for Baghdad flights, "It's because of the
travel bans," he explained.
Mayberry believes that migrant workers from the Philippines, India and Nepal
are especially vulnerable to employers like First Kuwaiti because their
countries have little or no diplomatic presence in Iraq.
"If you don't have your passport or an embassy to go to, what you do to get
out of a bad situation?" he asks.
"How can they go to the US State
Department for help if First Kuwaiti is building their embassy?"
Deadly Candy Store Medicine
Owen had already been working at the embassy site since late November when
Mayberry arrived. The two never crossed paths, but both share similar
complaints about management of the project and brutal treatment of the
laborers that, at times, numbered as many as 2,500. Most are from the
Philippines, India, and Pakistan. Others are from Egypt and Turkey.
The number of workers with injuries and ailments stunned Mayberry.
to work immediately after and stayed busy around the clock for days.
Four days later, First Kuwaiti pulled him off the job after he requested an
investigation of two patients who had died before he arrived from what he
suspected was medical malpractice. Mayberry also recommended that the health
clinics be shut down because of unsanitary conditions and mismanagement.
"There hadn't been any follow up on medical care. People were walking around
intoxicated on pain relievers with unwrapped wounds and there were a lot of
infections," he recalls.
"The idea that there was any hygiene seemed
ridiculous. I'm not sure they were even bathing."
Labor Trafficking Under US Funded Iraq Contracts
CNN: Probe into Iraq Trafficking Claims
May 5, 2004
The New York Times: Indian Contract Workers in Iraq Complain of Exploitation
May 7, 2004
The Washington Post: Underclass of Workers Created in Iraq
July 1, 2004
In reports made available to the US State Department, the US Army and First
Kuwaiti, Mayberry listed dozens of concerns about the clinics, which he
found lacking in hot water, disinfectant, hand washing stations, properly
ambulances, and communication equipment. Mayberry also complained
that workers' medical records were in total disarray or nonexistent, the
beds were dirty, and the support staff hired by First Kuwaiti was poorly
The handling of prescription drugs especially bothered him.
Many of the
drugs that originated from Iraq and Kuwait were unsecured, disorganized and
unintelligibly labeled, he said in one memo. He found that the medical staff
frequently misdiagnosed patients. Prescription pain killers were being
handed out "like a candy store ... and then people were sent back to work."
Mayberry warned that the practice could cause addiction and safety hazards.
"Some were on the construction site climbing scaffolding 30 feet off the
ground. I told First Kuwaiti that you don't give painkillers to people who
are running machinery and working on heavy construction and they said
'that's how we do it."
The sloppy handling of drugs may have led to the two deaths, Mayberry
speculates. One worker, age 25, died in his room. The second, in his
mid-30s, died at the clinic because of heart failure. Both deaths may be
"medical homicide," Mayberry says -- because the patients may have been
negligently prescribed improper drug treatment.
If the State Department investigated, Mayberry knows nothing of the outcome.
Two State Department officials with project oversight responsibilities did
not return phone calls or emails inquiring about Mayberry's allegations. The
reports may have been ignored, not because of his complaints, but because
Mayberry is a terrible speller, a problem compounded by an Arabic
translation program loaded on his computer, he says.
Owen's account of his seven months on the job paints a similar picture to
Mayberry's. Health and safety measures were essentially non-existent, he
says. Not once did he witness a safety meeting.
Once an Egyptian worker fell
and broke his back and was sent home. No one ever heard from him again. "The
accident might not have happened if there was a safety program and he had
known how to use a safety harness."
Owen also says that managers regularly beat workers and that laborers were
issued only one work uniform, making it difficult to go to the laundry.
"You could never have it washed. Clothing got really bad ? full of sweat and
And while he often smuggled water to the work crews, medical care was a
different issue. When he urged laborers to get medical treatment for rashes
and sores, First Kuwaiti managers accused him of spoiling the laborers and
allowing them simply to avoid work, he says.
State Department officials supervising the project are aware of many such
events, but apparently do nothing, he said. Once when 17 workers climbed the
wall of the construction site to escape, a State Department official helped
round them up and put them in "virtual lockdown,"
Just before he resigned, hundreds of Pakistani workers went on strike in
June and beat up a Lebanese manager who they accused of harassing them.
estimates that 375 were then sent home.
'Treated Like Animals
Recent First Kuwaiti employees agree that the accounts shared by Owen and
Mayberry are accurate. One longtime supervisor claims that 50 to 60 percent
of the laborers regularly complain that First Kuwaiti "treats them like
animals," and routinely reduces their promised pay with confusing and
Another former First Kuwaiti manager, who declines to be named because of
possible adverse consequences, says that Owen's and Mayberry's complaints
only begin "to scratch the surface."
But scratching the surface is the only view yet available of what may be the
most lasting monument to the US liberation and occupation of Iraq.
As of now
only a handful of authorized State Department managers and contractors,
along with First Kuwaiti workers and contractors, are officially allowed
inside the project's walls. No journalist has ever been allowed access to
the sprawling 104-acre site with towering construction cranes raising their
necks along the skyline.
Even this tight security is a charade, says on former high-level First
First Kuwaiti managers living at the construction site
regularly smuggle prostitutes in from the streets of Baghdad outside the
Green Zone, he says.
Prostitutes, he explains are viewed as possible spies. "They are a big
But the exposure that the US occupation forces and First Kuwaiti may fear
most could begin with the contractor itself and the conditions workers are
forced to endure at this most obvious symbol of the American democracy
project in Iraq.
David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose
work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and
PBS. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.