Warehoused Asian workers in Iraq will be sent home

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 4, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Asian men who've been living in warehouses near the Baghdad airport while awaiting promised jobs with a military subcontractor now are in line to be sent home, and they're still not sure how they'll be paid for their time in Iraq.

Tensions simmered throughout the week at a compound where about 1,000 men from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka spoke out against their treatment by Najlaa International Catering Services, the Kuwaiti company that hired them for work in Iraq.

Jobs didn't materialize for the men, who've spent one to three months living in three pale blue warehouses packed with bunk beds along an airport side road.

Najlaa officials broke up a protest outside the warehouses Tuesday by pledging to pay the men. Marwan Rizk, the company's chief executive, told McClatchy that it would repatriate the workers and give them salaries for their time in the country.

Manoj Kodithuwakku, 28, a Sri Lankan living in one of the warehouses, said he and others were still waiting to be paid.

"It's very difficult for us to believe them after everything," he said.

Most of the men don't want to return to their countries yet. Most of them paid middlemen about $2,000 to link them up with work and get them to Iraq. Many, including Kodithuwakku, will owe on loans they took out to pay those fees.

Kodithuwakku said that the wages he'd earn at a Sri Lankan hotel, his job before he came to Iraq, wouldn't help him pay down that debt.

"It will be only sufficient for survival," he said.

Those fears contributed to a hectic scene Wednesday, when the men in the warehouses reportedly staged another raucous protest. At one point, Iraqi police fired over their heads to end the revolt, Kodithuwakku said.

About 400 were taken on buses to the airport Wednesday to board planes for Dubai, a hub for flights in and out of Iraq. Flights weren't available, however, and the men were returned to the warehouses.

Kodithuwakku said that about 160 were asked to get on buses again Thursday night, but they were holding out for stronger guarantees that Najlaa would pay them.

Najlaa is a subcontractor to KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary that provides a range of services for the U.S. military in Iraq.

Rizk told McClatchy this week that the company had encountered unspecified obstacles to its contracts in Iraq that delayed the jobs it anticipated giving the men. He said Najlaa took care of the men's basic health and safety needs, though the workers have complained about poor food and inadequate restrooms.

Spokesmen for the Multi-National Forces-Iraq have declined several requests for comment about the warehouses this week.

(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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