US subcontractor keeps 1,000 Asians confined in Iraq warehouse
A Kuwait catering company, hired by KBR, kept its workers in a windowless warehouse near Baghdad for as long as three months.
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Reached in Kuwait, Najlaa chief executive Marwan Rizk said the company recruited the laborers for contracts it expected to begin servicing, but the work didn't materialize. He didn't specify which contracts fell through or why they were delayed. The company offers a number of services in Iraq, including catering at US military bases.Skip to next paragraph
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"We had some obstacles with the services we were contracted to do," Rizk said. "These obstacles were not forecasted."
He said it's the company's practice to begin paying its employees once they start their jobs, though Najlaa credits them from the time they arrive in Iraq.
While the main complaint in the warehouse centered on living in what many considered prisonlike conditions, Najlaa officials said it was crucial to keep the men in the compound to prevent kidnappings or other dangers.
"We're in Iraq; it's a war zone," said Isha Rufaie, a Najlaa logistics manager who tried to calm the protest Tuesday.
Mr. Peters, the Sri Lankan, said the men had notified Najlaa officials in advance, and the firm had agreed to let them protest their status outside their compound. They walked in thick clusters up and down an airport side road that wouldn't be visible even to the sparse traffic that passes on the airport's primary routes.
The protest, nonetheless, caught the attention of Sabre, a British company that holds a contract to maintain security at the airport.
Sabre officers halted the protest by telling Najlaa to get the men back in the compound. Najlaa officials did so by telling the men they'd be paid Tuesday. They returned to the camp voicing skepticism that Najlaa would follow through. Some of them, reached by phone later in the day, said they hadn't been paid.
Sabre representatives said they've closed similar buildings housing laborers near the airport in the past.
Peters had a message for his countrymen who might consider pursuing work in Iraq.
"There is little money here. The jobs do not come easily and people are being held against their wishes," he said.
A group of about 50 men living in tents about a mile away were even worse off than the men in the warehouse, and they appeared to be victims of human trafficking. They live in huts they built with tarps and pieces of carpet, and said they had no access to food or water.
The property is under the control of the Iraq Civil Aviation Administration, which couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
These men apparently didn't arrive in Iraq with contracts promising them work, but instead had relied on agents who were supposed to place them in jobs. The men in the tent camp, who're from the same countries as those in the warehouse, said they paid close to $5,000 to the agents.
"We came to make a good salary and go home, but we're not lucky," said Ganesh Kumar Bhagat, 22, a Nepalese man who sleeps with four others in a tent along the main airport road.
He hasn't told his family that his plans did not succeed in Iraq, instead assuring them that he lives and works safely on an American base.
Mr. Bhagat and others at the camp gave a McClatchy reporter phone numbers for the agents who led them to Iraq. Some numbers had been disconnected. In other cases, people quickly hung up.
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