Underclass of Workers Created in Iraq
There, at an employment agency called Subhash Vijay Associates, they signed some papers and were handed tickets to Kuwait.
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.
They were issued ID cards that said "Brown & Root."
In a typical U.S. government contract, there are no restrictions on the number and "tiers" of subcontractors that can be used -- creating situations like the one that Ajayakumar and the other Indian workers were in. The contractor, in this case KBR, often must report only the first tier of subcontractors, meaning that the government is often unaware of how its work gets done or by whom. The General Accounting Office over the past decade has raised concerns about the lack of visibility when multiple layers of subcontractors, especially foreign subcontractors, are involved, but the policy has not changed.
At Q-West, Ajayakumar and Shani worked the day shift scrubbing the floors, carrying boxes and doing other odd jobs for the dining facility. Hamid and Shahjahan worked nights chopping food and helping the cooks. They said they were terrified by the frequent gunfire and mortar and rocket attacks, but what really upset them was the way they were treated by others on the base.
"The attitude of the people was not friendly at all. We were doing a service for these people but they shouted at us and talked down to us," Hamid said.
While their Western managers slept in air-conditioned trailers, they were crammed into tents in 100-degree-plus temperatures. The cooks set aside some rice and curry for them but it was not enough and they had to supplement their food with whatever was left over from the soldiers' meals -- which was often nothing. They were told they could not take the filtered bottled water but instead must drink the Iraqi tap water that was poured into aluminum buckets with tablets of chlorine and chunks of ice. The workers would pick through the soldiers' trash and retrieve the empty water bottles that they would use as cups.
Ajayakumar said he threw up for weeks from the contaminated water. He was allowed to see an Iraqi doctor who gave him one pill -- without explaining what it was for and which did nothing to alleviate his symptoms.
His co-workers had other complaints: that they were assigned to do construction work they weren't hired for, that they weren't adequately compensated for their 12- to 16-hour days, that Hindus were served beef, that Muslims were instructed to handle pork.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company