Underclass of Workers Created in Iraq
Many Foreign Laborers Receive Inferior Pay, Food and Shelter
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page A01
KOLLAM, India -- 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 said, 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.
Working alongside Americans trying to rebuild Iraq are an estimated tens of thousands of foreign contractors without whom the reconstruction could not function. Many toil for wages that are one-tenth -- or less -- of what U.S. workers might demand, saving millions of taxpayer dollars.
The employees were hired through a maze of recruiters and subcontractors on several continents, making oversight and accountability of the workforce difficult.
Pakistan is looking into reports that recruiters were illegally trying to hire security personnel to go to Iraq. The Philippines is assessing protection measures for its nationals after attacks killed two military support workers. And India is conducting an investigation into the dining service workers' allegations.
The State Department said it received a request from India for assistance and has passed it along to the Defense Department. A spokeswoman for the Army, which manages the KBR contract, said the responsibility for the investigation rests with the company.
KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., came to employ Ajayakumar and other Indian workers through five levels of subcontractors and employment agents. The company, 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.
KBR 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.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company