Underclass of Workers Created in Iraq
The workers said they felt trapped. They didn't want to be in Iraq, but returning home meant no more jobs, paying their own travel expenses and forfeiting the agent's fees. Plus, their bosses were holding their passports.
Three months into the men's stay in Iraq, there were explosions near the base and people ran out of the tents. While other contractors came out in full protective gear and jumped into their cars, the kitchen workers were told to stand outside near a tent in their pajamas.
"At that moment we realized that they are privileged people and we are nothing," Shani said.
One evening soon afterward, when they were handed a dinner of beef curry that hadn't been fully cooked, several dozen of them went to their manager, who worked for Gulf Catering, to complain. According to the workers, the man told them they would not get any more food. "We bought you," he reportedly said. Some Indian workers were so furious they packed their bags and began walking to the gates of the base. Another manager, who worked for the Event Source, raced over to them and urged them to stay, promising changes.
Things improved somewhat after that conversation, the workers said, and they got their own food, both vegetarian and meat curry each night, bottled water and -- by January -- many had air-conditioned trailers. Still, many felt defeated by the first few difficult months. And so in May when they were offered a bus ride out of Iraq, nearly everyone accepted.
As the men returned to Kerala, they began filing complaints -- about a dozen so far -- with the local police department, which has launched an investigation into how they were recruited.
The local employment agents, Subhash Vijay, Gulf Catering and Alargan did not respond to requests for comment.
Paul Morrell, president of the Event Source, whose representative was in charge of the dining facilities at Q-West, said he was surprised by the workers' allegations . He said the Event Source's agreement with its subcontractors requires them to provide adequate food and water and flak jackets, helmets and security guards to workers when they travel to and from bases. But, he acknowledged, the company had been unable to independently verify whether the requirements had been met.
"Any time workers expressed concerns, people got involved. They made sure the workers were treated fairly," Morrell said.
Meanwhile, Ajayakumar and the others are trying to bail themselves out of debt. While they were paid their promised base salaries -- how much overtime they deserved and got is a matter of dispute -- it was not enough to make up for the agent's fee and the interest payments many had racked up. They had assumed they would be working for two years, not nine months.
Ajayakumar has no job and no job prospects.
The only thing he has from his time in Iraq is a certificate of appreciation from KBR. It thanks him for his help in the success of the "dinning [sic] facility" at the camp. Thank you, the tribute on standard 8 ½-by-11-inch paper reads, "for your tireless effort."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company