by David Phinney
Sunday June 16th 2024



Philippines Investigates Claims of Workers in Iraq

The Philippine government launched a full-throttle investigation this week into claims of labor trafficking and smuggling made against the Kuwait contractor building the $592-million US embassy project in Baghdad. The move comes in despite of repeated statements by Bush administration officials and the contractor that the allegations are unfounded.
Two Americans who worked at the embassy site in 2006 testified during a July 26 congressional hearing that they had boarded airplanes in Kuwait after they and other passengers were given boarding passes for Dubai before flying directly to Baghdad where they worked at the sprawling 104-acre embassy construction site in the US-controlled International Zone. The passengers were low-wage migrant workers from South Asia and Africa employed by the contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, witnesses said.

One of the planes carried 51 Filipino workers who believed in March 2006 that they were headed to Dubai for jobs in hotels, according Rory Mayberry, an emergency medical technician under contract to First Kuwaiti. Mayberry said the workers had no idea that they were being flown directly flown to Baghdad until after the plane left Kuwait.
Philippine Department of Foreign affairs spokesman Claro Cristobal said his government is taking the Mayberry testimony “very, very seriously as it cuts to the heart of what we do for our migrant workers,” according to the in the Philippines.

“This particular issue is so serious because the very lives of our migrant workers — not just their comfort or their living conditions — but their very lives are at the core of what this issue is about,” he said.
Cristobal said the Philippine investigation would look into every aspect of the employment of Filipino workers in Iraq, where the Philippines has a standing deployment ban.
“The Philippines shall investigate fully the circumstances around the issue, verify each and every element in the situation for the purpose of making sure that our migrant workers don’t fall prey to what may amount to trafficking,” he said.

The Philippines imposed a ban on its nationals from working in Iraq in 2004 after Iraqi militants took Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz hostage. Dela Cruz was released after the Philippine government agreed to pull its peacekeeping troops out of Iraq. Since 2005, Philippine passports have been stamped with the mark, “Not Valid for Travel to Iraq.” India and Nepal have imposed similar travel restrictions to Iraq for its migrant workers.
First Kuwaiti human resource manager Adel Jabbour dismissed Mayberry’s claim this week while meeting with a team of Philippine diplomats in Kuwait. Jabbour is reported to have shown the officials a First Kuwaiti deployment list for workers dated March 22, 2006, with Mayberry’s name that includes 11 Filipinos, 24 Pakistanis and four Indians — not the 51 Filipinos Mayberry claims to have traveled with. Jabbour also said the plane only carried 40 passengers, according to the Philippine news network ABS-CBN.

Ricardo Endaya, Philippine ambassador to Kuwait, told Jabbour that: “We want all those Filipinos who were forcibly taken to be allowed to go home think this is very important.”
“We want to know (about) their conditions,” he added.

John Owens, an American labor foreman for the embassy project who boarded a different First Kuwaiti flight, related a story similar to Mayberry’s during his own testimony:

When flying from Kuwait to Baghdad, I saw a bunch of workers with tickets to Dubai. Mine was the only one that said Baghdad. When I asked the First Kuwaiti manager, he said — “Shhh, don’t say anything. If Kuwaiti customs knows they’re going to Iraq, they won’t let them on the plane.” When we landed, these workers were taken away in busses. There was nobody manning the customs station at the airport in Baghdad — I just walked through on my way back to the Green Zone.

Meanwhile, Philippine labor attache Leopoldo de Jesus ordered an investigation of all manpower recruitment agencies deploying workers to First Kuwaiti. He identified these agencies as Great Provider, GFI, MMS and Yanghwa. He said that these agencies have job orders from Middle East-based contractors. The workers are told that they will be assigned in Kuwait.
The Philippines also has issued a note verbale to the Kuwaiti embassy in Manila reminding it of the standing ban on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Iraq, the reported.
Earlier this week in Manila, Sen. Manuel Roxas II said there are an estimated 10,000 Filipino workers in Iraq who should not be there because of the continuing ban on deployment of Filipinos to the war-torn country. He cited information that the workers were reportedly being forced to work in substandard conditions and an unsafe environment.
During the July 26 congressional hearing, the State Department’s inspector general, Howard J. Krongard, said he visited the Baghdad embassy site last September after hearing allegations of worker abuse and possibly trafficking.
Krongard told US lawmakers that he gave the First Kuwaiti advance warning. During his September 15 visit, Krongard said he interviewed six workers selected by the contractor to gather information about the allegations but reported that :Nothing came to our attention” to substantiate the claims. He also said he spoke to 50 other workers while touring the embassy construction site where as many as 3,000 workers are employed.
Other former workers at the embassy site told IraqSlogger in May that if Krongard visited earlier than last September and unannounced, he may have witnessed something very different.
“Most of the allegations (from the Americans) were true before he arrived,” claimed Juvencio Lopez, a high-level project manager under the US State Department over the course of 2 years. During a telephone interview…. he said the laborers “had their backs to the wall,” and had been living 20 to a trailer. Protests over First Kuwaiti’s bad food, abusive treatment from managers and unsafe working conditions were routine among many of the 2,700 workers during much of 2005 and 2006.
“There were strikes and sit-downs every month,” Lopez says. He left Iraq in November 2006 and is now home in San Antonio, Texas. “Sometimes there were almost riots.”
Lopez vividly recalled a First Kuwaiti security guard unholstering his 9mm handgun and walking among the squatting protestors telling them to get back to work. Had the guard fallen or workers tackled him to the ground, the gun might have gone off. Lopez said he immediately reported the incident to First Kuwaiti. “Someone could gotten killed or injured.”
On another occasion, a company manager roughed up a Filipino worker, sources say. All of the other Filipinos nearby began loudly protesting as bewildered workers from other countries watched. “The workers were from 36 different countries and they everyone spoke a different language,” Lopez says.


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