By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007
Two American civilian contractors who worked on a massive U.S. Embassy construction project in Baghdad told Congress yesterday that foreign laborers were deceptively recruited and trafficked to Iraq to toil at the site, where they experienced physical abuse and substandard working conditions.
State Department officials disputed the charges, telling a House committee that inspections had not substantiated the worst reported abuses.
The accounts were delivered at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in the construction of a huge new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at a cost of nearly $600 million. The embassy, slated to be the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, is being built by a Kuwaiti firm, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., which was awarded the contract after no U.S. company would meet the terms, the committee was told.
First Kuwaiti's labor practices are under investigation by the Justice Department, which is looking into allegations that foreign employees were brought into Iraq under false pretenses and were unable to leave because the company had confiscated their passports.
First Kuwaiti has termed those allegations "ludicrous." The company declined the committee's invitation to testify or provide officials for interviews, said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee.
Testifying before the committee yesterday, John Owens, an American who worked for First Kuwaiti at the embassy site as a construction foreman from November 2005 to June 2006, said he found living and working conditions for the foreign laborers there "deplorable." Because of difficulty hiring Iraqis for work inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, most of the laborers were from such countries as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, the committee was told.
Foreign workers lived in tightly packed trailers and had "insufficient equipment and basic needs -- stuff like shoes and gloves," Owens said.
They worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and made as little as $240 a month, he said. They were "verbally and physically abused" and had their salaries docked for petty infractions, he added.
Rory J. Mayberry, an emergency medical technician who worked briefly at the embassy site under a subcontract, testified that he was asked by First Kuwaiti managers to escort 51 Filipinos through the Kuwait airport and onto a flight to Baghdad. However, "all of our tickets said we were going to Dubai," he said, adding that a First Kuwaiti manager instructed him not to tell any of the Filipinos that they were going to Baghdad.
He said the men were basically "kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work on the U.S. Embassy." Their passports had been confiscated, and they were driven away on buses after landing in Baghdad, then were "smuggled into the Green Zone," he said.
Howard J. Krongard, the State Department inspector general, strongly disputed the allegations in a subsequent session of the hearing. He testified that a "limited review" he conducted and inquiries by the inspector general of the U.S.-led military force in Iraq did not substantiate the abuse claims.
"Nothing came to our attention that caused us to believe that trafficking-in-persons violations" or other serious abuses "occurred at the construction workers' camp at the new embassy compound," Krongard said.