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Trafficking Of Foreign Workers Flourishes In Iraq

Following the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military brought an army of contract laborers to the country, many of them from South Asia. Workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh have mainly done menial jobs on U.S. military installations, from cleaning to cooking.

But that source of employment is drying up as the United States prepares to hand over many of its bases to the Iraqi army. Many South Asians subsequently have found work in Iraqi factories and homes, often with few guarantees and little protection.

Iraqi Rashid Abbas, who supervises a sweets factory in the middle of a Baghdad residential neighborhood, hired a group of workers from Bangladesh to finish off baked goods and load them for delivery. He says the idea came from seeing South Asians working on American bases.


"This new phenomenon is one of the consequences of the war. ... I think it's a good thing," he says.

For employers, it certainly is a good thing. The owner of the sweets factory, Rafil Musadak Muhamed Saleh, says the Bangladeshis work longer hours than Iraqis and get paid less: about $200 a month.

"Iraqis are not used to working hard, and they want more money," says Saleh. "The Bangladeshis are poor, and they consider it a good salary. The Iraqis will work an eight-hour day only. But the foreign workers will work 12 hours or more."

Saleh says he paid an Iraqi importer $800 to cover each worker's transport and paperwork. The South Asians each paid $5,000 — a fortune where they come from — to get to Iraq. Saleh acknowledges that some thought they would end up working at an American base, where they would have gotten paid up to $600 a month.

"When they learned they wouldn't be working with the Americans, some of the foreign workers refused to step outside of the protected airport or the green zone," Saleh says.


Saleh says his workers are housed, fed and given phone privileges.

The workers live in a tin-roofed building in the back of the factory. A visit to the accommodations revealed that they are very basic and ill-maintained.

The Bangladeshis say they have signed a three-year contract. Saleh keeps their passports, and they are rarely allowed to go out, for "security reasons," he said.

Until recently, the security situation precluded Iraqi enterprises from bringing in foreign workers. In the past few months, however, it has become a booming business, according to Iraqi businessmen.

Adel Mohammed Hussein, who runs a business that imports foreign workers, says he works closely with the Iraqi government and makes sure that everything is done legally.

Still, he says, the system is rife with abuse and that fly-by-night companies are basically trafficking foreign workers straight off U.S. military installations.

"Some fake companies came to us and offered us a number of people. They said, 'We have workers on U.S. bases, and we can bring them to you, and you can sell them on.' We refused to deal with them, and so they stuffed these laborers into a hotel and started to sell them off themselves," says Hussein.

Hussein says the problem is only bound to get worse.

"We asked some officials to take care of the problem, and they promised they would investigate and put some controls in, but until now, we haven't seen anything," he says.

With no oversight, these South Asian workers are at the mercy of their employers. And they face the increasing hostility of working Iraqis.

Anees Qahtan, a 27-year-old Iraqi, says, "I think they should use Iraqi workers, because there are many unemployed people here."

Factory supervisor Rashid Abbas says that while hiring Iraqis is a good nationalist cause, hiring foreigners is more practical. He thinks the use of foreign workers in Iraq will increase.

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