Labor practices in Iraq are under scrutiny, as contractors hire poor non-Iraqis to work low-wage jobs in a deadly environment. Migrant workers are employed through complex layers of companies working in Iraq. At the top of the pyramid is the US government, which assigned over $24 billion in contracts over 2004–2005. Laborers are often deceived with false promises of lucrative, safe jobs in nations such as Jordan and Kuwait, only to find themselves working in unsafe jobs across the border. Some source countries have banned workers from going to Iraq, but, with little regulation, labor brokers are finding loopholes.

Most of those deceived into accepting the fraudulent job offers are impoverished Asians. They hail largely from countries highly dependent on remittances, such as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as from Turkey and countries in the Middle East. Once in Iraq, these third-country nationals earn monthly salaries that rival yearly incomes in their home countries, mostly in blue-collar jobs like truck driving, construction, carpentry, warehousing, laundry and food preparation.

Even though the unemployment rate in Iraq is conservatively estimated at 25–30 percent, US subcontractors are attempting to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure with cheap migrant labor from South Asia. The US military also depends on this pipeline of cheap foreign labor to maintain camps and feed its ranks, because it fears that hiring Iraqis would allow insurgents to infiltrate its bases. It is far more cost-efficient for the US taxpayer to employ foreigners in these jobs than American soldiers.

To maintain the flow of cheap labor, the US military has prime contractors, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, and below them dozens of smaller subcontracting companies — largely based in the Middle East — including First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting, Alargan Trading of Kuwait, Gulf Catering, and the Saudi Trading and Construction Company of Saudi Arabia. [1] These companies recruit and employ the bulk of the foreign workers in Iraq by providing labor and services to the more high-profile prime contractors.

The US military, by partnering with subcontractors that actually hire the labor, absolves itself of all responsibility for the workers’ recruitment, transportation or protection. The subcontractors often turn to job brokers dealing in menial laborers.

These job brokers supplying US subcontractors with workers in Iraq employ practices condemned by the US in its own “Trafficking in Persons” report, such as luring people to Iraq with false promises of jobs elsewhere. Brokers falsify documents and seize passports to complete the deception. Even after foreign workers discover they have been lured under false pretenses, many feel trapped because they must pay off the huge fees brokers have charged to get them jobs.

Ramil Autencio, for example, thought he would be working at Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month when he signed a contract with MGM Worldwide Manpower and General Services in the Philippines. Upon arrival in Kuwait in 2003, he discovered that First Kuwaiti had bought his contract. He was then threatened that unless he and dozens of other Filipino workers went to Iraq, the Kuwaiti police would arrest them. Once in Iraq, he spent 11 hours a day “moving boulders” to fortify the US military encampments. [2] Ramesh Khadka was promised $200 a month as a cook with the US Army, although it was unclear where the job would be. In return, Khadka paid $3,000, and handed over his passport to a broker in Nepal to make sure he could not run away. [3] Although reliable numbers of migrant workers affected by this practice are not available, a rough estimate can be gleaned from the numbers cited by Halliburton, the US military’s biggest private contractor in Iraq. According to a Halliburton spokeswoman, approximately 40,000 workers from over 30 countries are employed in Iraq under the ubiquitous contract of military support. [4]

Nepal forbids its workers to go directly to Iraq, so some Nepalese circumvent the law by traveling to India and from there to Iraq. Although Filipino passports now explicitly ban entry into Iraq, the ranks of Filipinos sneaking over the border from neighboring countries swelled from an estimated 4,000 before the 2003 ban to 6,000 in 2005. [5]

High unemployment rates, intense poverty and the promise of a high-paying job motivate many migrants to leave their home countries. The World Bank estimates that nearly half of the Philippines’ 84 million people live on less than $2 a day and the combined unemployment and underemployment rate is 28 percent. [6] In contrast, a Filipino worker in Iraq earns $600–1,200 per month. [7]

These wages, however, are not earned without a human cost. False recruitment, involuntary servitude, poor working conditions, denial or delay in payment of wages and lack of protection make working in Iraq even more of a gamble. Former American contractors have reported that payments to migrant workers were often delayed for months at a time. [8] Migrant workers frequently sleep in crowded trailers and wait outside in line in 100-degree heat to eat “slop.” [9] Many are said to lack adequate medical care and put in hard labor seven days a week, ten 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 hit the sprawling military camps, American contractors slip on helmets and bulletproof vests, but foreign workers are shielded only by the shirts on their backs and the flimsy trailers they sleep in.

Many are killed in mortar attacks; some are shot. The case of 12 Nepalese men kidnapped from an unprotected convoy en route to a US military base in Iraq — one was beheaded — has been well-documented. Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private group, indicates that third-country nationals account for more than 100 of the roughly 270 contractor fatalities in the country since the start of the war in 2003. The number of unreported fatalities could be much higher and there are no available statistics on life-altering injuries.

As a result of this deception, hardship and danger, hundreds of migrant workers in Iraq began to protest their treatment. In May 2005, 300 Filipinos went on strike against Prime Projects International and Kellogg, Brown and Root, both of which subcontract workers to Halliburton. The strikers were soon joined by 500 others from India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to protest working conditions and pay. [10] Although this dispute was settled with intervention from the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, which offered free flights back to the Philippines, the practice of deceiving workers into accepting fraudulent job offers in Iraq continues. It is a disturbing contradiction that the United States continues to express concern about the treatment of foreign workers in the same countries that it relies on to supply labor for bases in Iraq.


[1] Financial Times, October 14, 2003.
[2] David Phinney, “Blood, Sweat and Tears: Asia’s Poor Build US Bases in Iraq,” Corp Watch, October 3, 2005.
[3] Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2005.
[4] Austin-American Statesman, November 9, 2005.
[5] National Public Radio, October 27, 2005.
[6] World Bank, World Development Indicators 2005 (Washington, DC, 2005).
[7] Austin-American Statesman, November 9, 2005.
[8] Phinney, op cit.
[9] National Public Radio, July 22, 2004.
[10] Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2005.


How to cite this article:

Rebecca Milligan "The Other Casualties of War in Iraq," Middle East Report 239 (Summer 2006).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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