Friday, July 02, 2004

Shanghaied in Mosul 

A couple of months back we ran an item from an Indian news agency about Malayali workers lured by the false promise of jobs in Kuwait, who instead found themselves working as galley slaves for the occupation forces in Iraq -- until they escaped. Earlier this week, after India filed a formal complaint with the State Department, the Washington Post finally sat up, took notice, and followed the money back to its inevitable source. Are you shocked to learn that the indentured servants in these modern-day press-gangs are bought and paid for by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Halliburton?
The war in Iraq has been a windfall for Kellogg Brown & Root Inc., the company that has a multibillion-dollar contract to provide support services for U.S. troops. Its profits have come thanks to the hard work of people like Dharmapalan Ajayakumar, who until last month served as a kitchen helper at a military base.

But Ajayakumar, 29, a former carpenter's assistant from this coastal town, was not there by choice.

He said he was tricked into going to Iraq by a recruiting agent who told him the job was in Kuwait. Moreover, he alleged, the company skimped on expenses by not providing him and other workers with adequate drinking water, food, health care or security for part of their time in the war zone.

"I cursed my fate -- not having a feeling my life was secure, knowing I could not go back, and being treated like a kind of animal," said Ajayakumar, who worked for less than $7 a day . . . .

KBR -- which came to employ Ajayakumar and other Indian workers through five levels of subcontractors and employment agents and which employs 30,000 workers from 38 countries in support of the U.S. military -- said it had been unaware of the workers' concerns until recently. Spokeswoman Patrice Mingo said the company met with representatives of the Indian government to discuss the complaints. For now, there is "no substantiated proof on which to take action," Mingo said, but the company is open to discussing the matter further with current or former employees.

"KBR does not condone and will not tolerate any practice that unlawfully compels subcontract employees to perform work or remain in place against their will," Mingo said . . . .

Ajayakumar was thrilled when a recruiting agent came to him in June 2003 and offered to "sell" him a two-year work visa in Kuwait for a catering company job that would pay $200 a month -- five times what he was making at the carpenter's shop. He gladly paid the agent's $1,800 fee, borrowing from local loan sharks, calculating that he would still make out with significant profits . . . .

In Kuwait City, the workers were put on a bus and told they were going to "the border."

It didn't stop until they arrived at Q-West, a camp occupied by the 101st Airborne Division near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. There, the men became part of the largest civilian workforce supporting the U.S. military in history. Subhash Vijay had hired them to work for Gulf Catering Co. of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which was subcontracted to Alargan Group of Kuwait City, which was subcontracted to the Event Source of Salt Lake City, which in turn was subcontracted to KBR of Houston.
Link via Jo Fish of the consistently excellent Democratic Veteran, who wonders: "What do you suppose that KBR and it's parent CheneyBurton were billing us, the taxpayer for his services? I'm just ballparking here, but I'm willing to be it was far more than SEVEN dollars a day."

(And credit beloved entertainer TBogg with the assist.)

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