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Thursday, October 13, 2005

It's Not Personal. It's Just Business 

1.) Our distinguished colleague Somegirl at the All Spin Zone directed us to a multi-part expose, by Cam Simpson of the Chicago Tribune, which describes the manpower dilemma faced by the various entrepreneurs charged with the reconstruction of Iraq. American troops have traditionally done this sort of work in the past, but there are not enough of them to go around as it is, and the recruiting offices are not exactly mobbed with volunteers; besides, the reconstruction fees have already been promised to Halliburton and its subsidiaries. The people of Iraq would undoubtedly be grateful for an opportunity to rebuild their own ravaged country, but they are, of course, unreliable; their ranks are full of potential insurgents. The obvious solution? Shanghai destitute foreign laborers who will work for a pittance, and who won't be much missed if they step into the path of a stray bullet. If American laws forbid the rounding up of press gangs, the job can always be farmed out to a subcontractor:
American tax dollars and the wartime needs of the U.S. military are fueling an illicit pipeline of cheap foreign labor, mainly impoverished Asians who often are deceived, exploited and put in harm's way in Iraq with little protection.

The U.S. has long condemned the practices that characterize this human trade as it operates elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet this very system is now part of the privatization of the American war effort and is central to the operations of Halliburton subsidiary KBR, the U.S. military's biggest private contractor in Iraq.

To document this system, the Tribune retraced the journey of 12 Nepalese men kidnapped last year from an unprotected convoy en route to an American military base in Iraq. The Tribune's reporting found that:
  • To maintain the flow of low-paid workers key to military support and reconstruction in Iraq, the U.S. military has allowed KBR to partner with subcontractors that hire laborers from Nepal and other countries that prohibit citizens from being deployed in Iraq. That means brokers recruiting such workers operate illicitly.

  • The U.S. military and KBR assume no responsibility for the recruitment, transportation or protection of foreign workers brought to the country. KBR leaves every aspect of hiring and deployment in the hands of its subcontractors. Those subcontractors often turn to job brokers dealing in menial laborers.

  • Working in tandem with counterparts in the Middle East, the brokers in South and Southeast Asia recruit workers from some of the world's most remote areas. They lure laborers to Iraq with false promises of lucrative, safe jobs in nations such as Jordan and Kuwait, even falsifying documents to complete the deception.

  • Even after foreign workers discover they have been lured under false pretenses, many say they have little choice but to continue into Iraq or stay longer than planned. They feel trapped because they must repay brokers' huge fees.

  • Some U.S. subcontractors in Iraq--and the brokers feeding them--employ practices condemned by the U.S. elsewhere, including fraud, coercion and seizure of workers' passports . . . .
Halliburton would not say whether it includes such laborers in its public tallies of contractor casualties in Iraq. But figures compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private group, indicate that third-country nationals--neither Iraqis nor citizens from U.S. coalition members--account for more than 100 of the roughly 270 contractor fatalities in the country since the start of the war. Those numbers are based on the group's tracking of Defense Department releases and media accounts.

The U.S. military has outsourced vital support operations in Iraq to KBR at an unprecedented scale, a deal that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $12 billion. KBR, in turn, outsources much of that work to more than 200 subcontractors, many of them based in the Middle East.

The subcontractors employ an army of workers from developing countries to dish out food, wash clothes and clean latrines. About 35,000 of the 48,000 people working for those subcontractors are not Americans, KBR has said.
2.) As any (poorly-informed) American will tell you, Americans are the most charitable people in the world: look at the billions in humanitarian aid we squander on starving foreigners half a world away! And those people are perfect strangers. Why shouldn't good solid American companies share in the largesse? Remember, it's good to do good, but it's great to do well:
It seemed like a no-brainer: changing the law to allow the federal government to buy food in Africa for Africans facing starvation instead of paying enormous sums to ship it from the American heartland, halfway around the world. Not only would the food get to the hungry in weeks instead of months, the government would save money and help African farmers at the same time.

The new approach had an impeccable sponsor in Republican-dominated Washington. The Bush administration, famous for its go-it-alone style, was trying to move the United States - by far the world's biggest food donor - into the international mainstream with a proposal to take a step in just this direction. A lot of rich countries had already done so, most recently Canada.

So why is this seemingly sensible, cost-effective proposal near death in Congress?

Fundamentally, because the proposal challenges the political bargain that has formed the basis for food aid over the past half century: that American generosity must be good not just for the world's hungry but also for American agriculture. That is why current law stipulates that all food aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development be grown by American farmers and mostly shipped on United States-flag vessels. More practically, however, it is because the administration's proposal has run into opposition from three interests some critics call the Iron Triangle of food aid: agribusiness, the shipping industry and charitable organizations.

Just four companies and their subsidiaries, led by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, sold more than half the $700 million in food commodities provided through the United States Agency for International Development's food aid program in 2004, government records show. Just five shipping companies received over half the more than $300 million spent to ship that food, records show.
3.) Okay, you're saying, enough with the sledgehammer: corporations are in it for the money, and they put profits before people, and they don't show much concern for the plight of the wretched of the earth; thus has it ever been. Console yourself with that thought when these chickens come home to roost:
Tamiflu, a pricey antiviral pill invented in a Bay Area lab and made in part from a spice used in Chinese cookery, has emerged as the world's first line of defense against bird flu should the deadly strain begin its feared spread among human beings.

As nations begin to stockpile the drug in anticipation of a flu pandemic, calls are mounting for countries to sidestep patents on the drug -- as Brazil first did for AIDS medications -- and make their own generic versions.

But Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche, which acquired rights to the drug from Gilead Sciences Inc. of Foster City in 1996, said Wednesday it had no intention of letting others make it.

"Roche ... fully intends to remain the sole manufacturer of Tamiflu," said company spokesman Terry Hurley.

The immediate problem is not the cost of Tamiflu, which runs about $60 for a 10-pill course of treatment, but a staggering gap between the sudden demand for it and the capacity of its sole manufacturer to produce it.

Although Roche has increased production of Tamiflu eightfold in the past two years, it will take $16 billion and 10 years to make enough of the drug for 20 percent of the world's population, said Klaus Stohr, director of the World Health Organization's Global Influenza Program, in comments to reporters in San Francisco last week.

"Something has to be done," said Ira Longini, an Emory University professor whose computer model of a potential avian flu pandemic shows that an outbreak could be snuffed out within a month by rushing antiviral drugs to the place where it started. "When you think of the potential damage a pandemic flu could do, and how little drug we have, the situation is quite absurd."
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