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Abuse of workers building U.S. embassy in Iraq is alleged

McClatchy Newspapers | July 27, 2007
Renee Schoof

Two former employees of First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting, the company that's building the new $592 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, testified to a House of Representatives panel Thursday that they'd observed abuses of construction workers.

John Owens, who worked on the site as a security liaison from November 2005 to June 2006, said he'd seen foreign workers packed in trailers and working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with time off Fridays for Muslim prayers. Several told him they earned about $300 a month, after fees were taken out, and that they were docked three days' pay for such offenses as clocking in five minutes late.

Rory Mayberry, who said he'd been a medic on the site for five days, said First Kuwaiti had asked him to escort 51 Filipino men from Kuwait to Baghdad but not to tell them where they were going. Their tickets showed that they were flying to Dubai, Mayberry said. They screamed protests when they discovered on the flight that they were headed to Baghdad, he said.

Mayberry also said he'd seen workers high on scaffolding without safety harnesses.

In a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said Americans were responsible because U.S. taxpayers' money paid the workers.

Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut agreed.

"We have to make sure in the process of trying to find people who can work on the embassy, if Iraqis can't, that we are in essence not becoming part of the problem of human trafficking," Shays said.

First Kuwaiti said in a statement that Owens' and Mayberry's claims were unsubstantiated. It said it had fired Mayberry when he couldn't prove he was a medic, and that Owens had filed a lawsuit against the company that was pending.

"The implication that First Kuwaiti laborers are brought into Iraq against their will and are kept there to work against their will is absolutely ludicrous," it said.

The committee's examination of alleged abuses at the new Baghdad Embassy came as workers are finishing the 21 buildings that will make up the huge office and residential compound for American diplomats in the fortified Green Zone. America's largest embassy is on schedule for completion in September. High walls topped with razor wire obscure all but the tops of the tallest buildings.

The State Department's inspector general, Howard Krongard, said he'd received allegations that workers had signed contracts at home to work in Dubai and hadn't learned that they were going to Baghdad until they were in the air and almost there. He said he'd also heard other complaints, including some about squalid living conditions.

Krongard said a brief review that he'd conducted in Baghdad last September had found no evidence of trafficking in persons or of human-rights abuses against the mostly South and East Asian workers. Follow-up inspections by American officials found no problems except recruitment fees that were illegal in some of the workers' home countries, he testified.

"At this time our reach does not extend to third-country hiring practices," said William Moser, the deputy assistant secretary for acquisitions.

"I don't believe I have the authority to enforce the laws of Sri Lanka, I really don't," Krongard added.

Charles E. Williams, the director of the State Department's Office of Overseas Building Operations, said he'd look into the concerns.

Patrick Kennedy, the director of the State Department's Office of Management Policy, said it wasn't possible to hire many Iraqis to build the embassy. Iraqis who work for Americans fear for their lives at the hands of insurgents and militiamen. Kennedy said they feared being seen entering and leaving the Green Zone, and that it was difficult for American officials to run security checks on them.

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