News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Slave labor by US Companies in Iraq?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Slave labor by US Companies in Iraq?

To call this slave labor is, of course, inflammatory. Most people will tell you that these people are there of their own "free will," therefore they are not slaves. On the other hand, the conditions under which they work are scandalous. Even the American supervisors who oversee them find their conditions unjust. Not having enough food to eat, under continual fear for their lives, these workers who seek only to better their lives are willing to die so that they can scratch out a living back home. In some sense this appears to be, at the least, a mercenary exploitation of people by American companies.

The responsibilities of these companies towards these workers seem in question. In some people's eyes, the companies are doing a great service by just making the jobs available to them. But when does the saccharine idea of benefiting them become simply an empty platitude? Certainly, in the US such practices would be outrageous, yet because these workers are not Americans they garner none of the same safeguards and consideration that an American in the same situation would get.

I worked in this industry for several years, helping to write proposals. The money these comapnies depends in large part on their costs. If the contracts that they have with the govt. are "fixed fee," then they get to keep any money that they do not spend to do the work. Of course, the question is often how much they say that employing these workers costs the company--that is, they might be billing the govt. many dollars more per employee than they are actually paying the employees.

If the contracts are "cost plus," then their costs are simply covered and they receive a bonus for accomplishing the work. Again, however, how much their costs are depend on how much they actually bill the govt. for the services they provide. See my comments above.

Where does the American reputation for fairness and equality begin and end? It would seem that the least these comanies could do is to 1) pay them a fair wage 2) make sure they are eating right 3) make sure they receive protection equal to the danger they face 4) make sure they receive adequate training and 5) they have the proper equipment to do their jobs.

The bigger issues involve responsibility as human beings treating other humans in a human way. No doubt, there are many inequalities in the world. The question is, how do Americans react to and exploit these inequalities. Responsibility seems to involve the notion that people have an inherent duty to make sure that others do not suffer under conditions for which I have the power to control and modify.

Many of these workers are desperate for work--does that then mean that I take advantage of the situation to make a profit off their situation? By becoming involved with them, it would seem that along with involvement goes certain responsibilites and obligations that I must meet as part of my own moral responsibility towards them. By simply saying that the world is a bad place, that others might be doing the same thing, or that the laws or lack of laws allows this type of exploitation seems to be immoral.

According to Hobbes, one of the basic elements of political agreements is the freedom from fear. In entering into a contract between members of a civil arrangement, agreement assumes that the one with power will protect those that have no power. This basline element seems to have been broached in this situation of workers helping to rebuild Iraq under the supervision of American contractors.

Any type of exploitation is simply wrong. To place it in "historical" persepctive as some try to do by citing slavery and worse forms of human exploitation is simply try to assuage the moral decrepitude that informs these practices. On one level, of course, one can say that the corporations are doing these guys a favor--arguing that they don't have it so good in their country, etc. on the other hand, I argue that injustice is injustice.

Even if someone wants to labor under under an unjust arrangement--and who knows how many reasons there might be for that, reasons that drive people to do desperate things--it would seem that it is still immoral to allow the arrangement to take place.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Asia’s Poor Build U.S. Bases in Iraq
by David Phinney, Special to CorpWatch
October 3rd, 2005

Jing Soliman left his family in the Philippines for what sounded like a sure thing--a job as a warehouse worker at Camp Anaconda in Iraq. His new employer, Prime Projects International (PPI) of Dubai, is a major, but low-profile, subcontractor to Halliburton's multi-billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon to provide support services to U.S. forces.

But Soliman wouldn’t be making anything near the salaries-- starting $80,000 a year and often topping $100,000-- that Halliburton's engineering and construction unit, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) pays to the truck drivers, construction workers, office workers, and other laborers it recruits from the United States. Instead, the 35-year-old father of two anticipated $615 a month – including overtime. For a 40-hour work week, that would be just over $3 an hour. But for the 12-hour day, seven-day week that Soliman says was standard for him and many contractor employees in Iraq, he actually earned $1.56 an hour.

Soliman planned to send most of his $7,380 annual pay home to his family in the Philippines, where the combined unemployment and underemployment rate tops 28 percent. The average annual income in Manila is $4,384, and the World Bank estimates that nearly half of the nation's 84 million people live on less than $2 a day.

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But there is also a human cost to this savings. Numerous former American contractors returning home say they were shocked at conditions faced by this mostly invisible, but indispensable army of low-paid workers. TCNs frequently sleep in crowded trailers and wait outside in line in 100 degree plus heat to eat “slop.” Many are said to lack adequate medical care and put in hard labor seven days a week, 10 hours or more a day, for little or no overtime pay. Few receive proper workplace safety equipment or adequate protection from incoming mortars and rockets. When frequent gunfire, rockets and mortar shell from the ongoing conflict hits the sprawling military camps, American contractors slip on helmets and bulletproof vests, but TCNs are frequently shielded only by the shirts on their backs and the flimsy trailers they sleep in.

Adding to these dangers and hardships, some TCNs complain publicly about not being paid the wages they expected. Others say their employers use “bait-and-switch” tactics: recruiting them for jobs in Kuwait or other Middle Eastern countries and then pressuring them to go to Iraq. All of these problems have resulted in labor disputes, strikes and on-the-job protests.

While the exact number of TCNs working in Iraq is uncertain, a rough estimate can be gleaned from Halliburton’s own numbers, which indicate that TCNs make up 35,000 of KBR’s 48,000 workers in Iraq employed under sweeping contract for military support. Known as the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), this contract – by far the largest in Iraq -- is now approaching the $15 billion mark. Citing security concerns, however, the Houston-headquartered company and several other major contractors declined to release detailed figures on the workforce that is estimated to be 100,000 or more.

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Read more

David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS. He can be contacted at: Lucille Quiambao and Howie Severino reported from the Philippines for this article. Additional research by Pratap Chatterjee.

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