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Underdogs of war, part 2

Marketplace Staff Jun 12, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Today President Bush said the US will be going after the new head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. That man — Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — promised no let up in suicide bombings and attacks on US troops. Just today, 34 people were killed in the Iraqi war. Apart from US and Allied military, there are thousands of other foreigners there. Bodyguards and military escorts. And lower-tier workers, serving food or doing the laundry. The Pentagon has contracted many of those jobs to a company named KBR. Which has, in turn, subcontracted with dozens of other companies. Ben Gilbert spent some time with workers at an American base near Ramadi.

BEN GILBERT: On US military bases in Iraq, what used to be known as the chow hall is now called the D-FAC. It’s short for “dining facility.” And it’s an amazing place. American soldiers and marines line up to such American classics as mashed potatoes and gravy, meatloaf and Baskin Robbins ice cream. Serving the troops are dozens of young men from Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. They’re called Third Country National workers, or TCN’s. They come here for the promise of a good salary. The good salary does not always meet their expectations.

MOWAD LATHEER:“Our salary is $250. Very low salary.”

That’s $250 a month, says 26-year-old Mowad Latheer, from Sri Lanka. He’s been in Iraq one month, working for KBR subcontractor Renaissance Corporation of Oman. He says he thought he’d be making more money after a few months here. Not so. He won’t get a higher pay grade for some time.

LATHEER:“After one year, going up.”

Workers like Latheer say they are routinely misled by their employers in the Middle East, and the US military bases are no exception. Some of the 200 employees at this D-FAC say they work 12 hours per day, and get two days off per month. They complain they receive no danger pay for being stationed near the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, where mortar attacks on the base are common. And none of them seem quite sure what their contract says. Some of the workers were so confused about the details of their contracts that they got into a heated argument.

The confusion might be a result of these men not having a copy of their contract to begin with. The US military ordered companies working on American bases in Iraq to provide all employees with a copy of their contracts. This wasn’t the only aspect of the labor practices that changed recently, says Sri Lankan Tapan Oh Prayti.

TAPAN OH PRAYTI:“They took our passport. . . . They took our passports so we wouldn’t flee anywhere. That could be the reason.”

Until May 1, companies routinely took workers’ passports to prevent them from “jumping” to other employers, the US military found. The problem became so prevalent that the US military had to order companies working on US bases to return the passports of their workers or face ejection from the base.

The US military order also said contractors used “deceptive hiring practices” that charged “excessive recruiting fees” to potential third country national employees.

The military also said some bases had inadequate living facilities, but the workers on the base at Ramadi say the facilities are good, and most are willing to stick around. They sleep four to a room, and have Internet access and share a TV lounge. But others are sick of it. Ishmael Pornookah-thay from Sri Lanka makes $600 per month as a senior cook.

ISHMAEL PORNOOKAH-THAY:“They didn’t pay the good salary to us. I am ready to go home. I want to make a nice future, get married, but now I can’t do anything. There’s not enough for me, and not enough for my family.”

But plenty of people would be willing to take Ishmael’s place for the $600 salary he’s earning. Even the lowest paid worker here makes $230 per month, at least three times more than most Sri Lankans.

In Baghdad, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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