A peek behind the walls of
'Fortress US' By David Phinney
WASHINGTON - Things began looking
sketchier than ever to John Owen as he boarded a
nondescript white jet on his way back to Iraq in
March 2005 after some downtime in Kuwait City.
Employed by First Kuwaiti Trading &
Contracting, the lead builder for the new US$592
million US Embassy in Baghdad, Owen remembers
being surrounded at the airport by about 50
company laborers freshly hired from the
Philippines and India. Everyone
was holding boarding
passes to Dubai - not to Baghdad.
thought there was some sort of mix-up and I was
getting on the
plane," said the 48-year-old Floridian, who was
working as a general construction foreman on the
He buttonholed a First
Kuwaiti manager standing nearby and asked what was
going on. The manager waved his hand, looked
around the terminal and whispered to keep quiet.
"If anyone hears we are going to Baghdad, they
won't let us on the plane," Owen recalled the
The secrecy struck Owen as
a little odd, but he grabbed his luggage and moved
on. Everyone filed out to the private jet and flew
directly to Baghdad. "I figured that they had
visas for Kuwait and not Iraq," Owen said in an
The deception had all the
appearances of smuggling workers into Iraq, but
Owen didn't know at the time that the Philippines,
India and other countries had banned or restricted
their citizens from working in Iraq because of
safety concerns and growing opposition to the war.
After 2004, many passports were stamped "not valid
Nor did Owen know that both the
US State Department and the Pentagon were quietly
investigating contractors such as First Kuwaiti
for labor trafficking and worker abuse. In fact,
the international news media had accused First
Kuwaiti repeatedly of coercing workers to take
jobs in battle-torn Iraq once they had been lured
to Kuwait with safer offers.
Kuwait-headquartered, Lebanese-run company has
billed several billion dollars on US contracts
since the war began in March 2003. Much of its
work is performed by cheap labor largely hired
from South Asia, and the company has an estimated
7,500 foreign laborers in the theater of war.
Now, with a highly secretive contract
awarded by the US State Department, First Kuwaiti
is in the midst of building the most expensive and
heavily fortified embassy in the world. Scheduled
to open next year, the sprawling complex near the
Tigris River will equal Vatican City in size.
But Owen says that working on the project
proved to be one of the worst jobs he had ever had
in his 27 years of construction work.
one of the five different US embassy sites Owen
had worked on around the world previously compared
to the mess he describes. Armenia, Bulgaria,
Angola, Cameroon and Cambodia all had their share
of dictators, violence and economic disruption,
but the companies building the embassies were
always fair and professional, he said.
First Kuwaiti is the exception. Brutal and
inhumane, he said. "I've never seen a project more
f---ed up. Every US labor law was broken."
Seven months after signing on with First
Kuwaiti last November, he quit.
resignation letter in June, Owen told First
Kuwaiti and US State Department officials that his
managers physically assaulted and beat the
construction workers, demonstrated little regard
for worker safety and routinely breached security.
And it was all happening smack in the
middle of the US-controlled Green Zone, he said -
right under the nose of the State Department that
had quietly awarded the controversial embassy
Owen also complained of poor
sanitation, squalid living conditions and medical
malpractice in the labor camps where several
thousand low-paid migrant workers lived. Those
workers, recruited on the global labor market from
the Philippines, India, Pakistan and other poor
South Asian countries, earned as little as $10-$30
a day. As with many US-funded contractors, First
Kuwaiti prefers importing labor because it views
Iraqi workers as a security headache not worth the
Despite numerous e-mails and
phone calls about such allegations, neither First
Kuwaiti general manager Wadih al-Absi nor his
lawyer, Angela Styles, the former top White House
contract policy adviser, has responded. After a
year of requests, State Department officials
involved with the project also have ignored or
rejected opportunities for comment.
However, on April 4, the Pentagon issued a
new contracting directive after a secret
investigation that officially confirmed what many
South Asian laborers had been complaining about
ever since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Some contractors, many working as
subcontractors to Halliburton in Iraq, were found
to be using deceptive, bait-and-switch hiring
practices and charging recruiting fees that
indebted low-paid migrant workers for many months
or even years to their employers. Contractors were
also accused of providing substandard, crowded
sleeping quarters, serving poor food and
circumventing Iraqi immigration procedures.
While the Pentagon declines specifically
to name those contractors found to be doing
business in this way, it also acknowledged in an
April 19 memorandum that it was a widespread
practice among contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan
to take away workers' passports. Holding on to
employee passports - a direct violation of US
labor-trafficking laws - helped stop workers from
leaving war-torn Iraq or taking better jobs with
Contractors engaging in
the practice, stated the memo, must immediately
"cease and desist".
"All passports will be
returned to employees by May 1, 2006. This
requirement will be flowed down to each of your
subcontractors performing work in this theater,"
The Pentagon has yet to announce
any penalty for those found to be in violation of
US labor-trafficking laws or contract
customer Several months before Owen quit,
Rory Mayberry witnessed similar events when he
flew to Kuwait from his home in Myrtle Creek,
The gravely-voiced, easy-going US
Army veteran had previously worked in Iraq for
Halliburton and the private security company
Danubia. Missing the action and the big paychecks
US contractors draw there, Mayberry snagged a
$10,000-a-month job with MSDS consulting company.
MSDS is a two-person minority-owned
consulting company that assists US State
Department managers in Washington with procurement
programming. Never before had the firm offered
medical services or worked in Iraq, but First
Kuwaiti - Owen's employer - hired MSDS on the
recommendation of Jim Golden, the State Department
contract official overseeing the embassy project.
Within days, an agreement worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars for medical care was signed.
Mayberry, 45, a former emergency medical
technician in the US Army who worked as a funeral
director in Oregon, responded to a help-wanted ad
placed by MSDS. The plan was that he would work as
a medic attending to the construction crews on the
work site in Baghdad.
Like Owen, Mayberry
immediately sensed things weren't right when he
boarded a First Kuwaiti flight on March 15 to
At the airport in Kuwait City,
Mayberry said, he saw a person behind a counter
hand First Kuwaiti managers a passenger manifest,
an envelope of money and a stack of boarding
passes to Dubai. The managers then handed out the
boarding passes to Mayberry and 50 or so new First
Kuwaiti laborers, mostly Filipinos.
"Everyone was told to tell customs and
security that they were flying to Dubai," Mayberry
said in an interview. Once the group passed the
guards, they went upstairs and waited by the
McDonald's for First Kuwaiti staff to unlock a
door - Gate 26 - that led to an unmarked, aging,
white 52-seat jet.
"All the workers had
their passports taken away by First Kuwaiti,"
Mayberry claimed, and while he knew the plane was
bound for Baghdad, he's not so sure the others
were aware of their destination. The Asian
laborers began asking questions about why they
were flying north and the jet wasn't flying east
over the ocean, he said. "I think they thought
they were going to work in Dubai."
former First Kuwaiti supervisor acknowledged that
the company held passports of many workers in Iraq
- a violation of US contracting laws.
of the passports are kept in the offices," said
one company insider who requested anonymity for
fear of financial and personal retribution. As for
distributing Dubai boarding passes for Baghdad
flights, "It's because of the travel bans," he
Mayberry believes that migrant
workers from the Philippines, India and Nepal are
especially vulnerable because their countries have
little or no diplomatic presence in Iraq.
"If you don't have your passport or an
embassy to go to, what do you do to get out of a
bad situation?" he asked. "How can they go to the
US State Department for help if First Kuwaiti is
building their embassy?"
Owen had already
been working at the embassy site since late
November when Mayberry arrived. The two never
crossed paths, but both share similar complaints
about management of the project and poor treatment
of the laborers that, at times, numbered as many
as 2,500. Most are from the Philippines, India and
Pakistan. Others are from Egypt and Turkey.
The number of workers with injuries and
ailments stunned Mayberry. He went to work
immediately after and stayed busy around the clock
Four days later, First Kuwaiti
pulled him off the job after he requested an
investigation of two patients who had died before
he arrived from what he suspected was medical
malpractice. Mayberry also recommended that the
health clinics be shut down because of unsanitary
conditions and mismanagement.
hadn't been any follow-up on medical care. People
were walking around intoxicated on pain relievers
with unwrapped wounds, and there were a lot of
infections," he recalled. "The idea that there was
any hygiene seemed ridiculous. I'm not sure they
were even bathing."
In reports made
available to the US State Department, the US Army
and First Kuwaiti, Mayberry listed dozens of
concerns about the clinics, which he found lacking
in hot water, disinfectant, hand-washing stations,
properly supplied ambulances, and communication
equipment. Mayberry also complained that workers'
medical records were in total disarray or
non-existent, the beds were dirty, and the support
staff hired by First Kuwaiti was poorly trained.
The handling of prescription drugs
especially bothered him. Many of the drugs that
originated from Iraq and Kuwait were unsecured,
disorganized and unintelligibly labeled, he said
in one memo. He found that the medical staff
frequently misdiagnosed patients. Prescription
painkillers were being handed out "like a candy
store ... and then people were sent back to work".
Mayberry warned that the practice could
cause addiction and safety hazards. "Some were on
the construction site climbing scaffolding 30 feet
off the ground. I told First Kuwaiti that you
don't give painkillers to people who are running
machinery and working on heavy construction and
they said, 'That's how we do it.'"
sloppy handling of drugs may have led to the two
deaths, Mayberry speculated. One worker, age 25,
died in his room. The second, in his mid-30s, died
at the clinic because of heart failure.
the State Department investigated, Mayberry knows
nothing of the outcome. Two State Department
officials with project-oversight responsibilities
did not return phone calls or e-mails inquiring
about Mayberry's allegations. The reports may have
been ignored not because of his complaints, but
because Mayberry is a terrible speller, a problem
compounded by an Arabic-translation program loaded
on his computer, he says.
of his seven months on the job paints a similar
picture to Mayberry's. Health and safety measures
were in essence non-existent, he said. Not once
did he witness a safety meeting. Once an Egyptian
worker fell and broke his back and was sent home.
No one ever heard from him again. "The accident
might not have happened if there was a safety
program and he had known how to use a safety
harness," Owen said.
officials supervising the project were aware of
many such events, but apparently did nothing, he
said. Once when 17 workers climbed the wall of the
construction site to escape, a State Department
official helped round them up and put them in
"virtual lockdown", Owen said.
he resigned, hundreds of Pakistani workers went on
strike in June and beat up a Lebanese manager whom
they accused of harassing them. Owen estimates
that 375 laborers were then sent home.
Recent First Kuwaiti employees agree that
the accounts of Owen and Mayberry are accurate.
One longtime supervisor claimed that 50-60% of the
laborers regularly protested that First Kuwaiti
"treats them like animals", and routinely reduced
their promised pay with confusing and unexplained
Another former First Kuwaiti
manager, who declined to be named because of
possible adverse consequences, said that Owen's
and Mayberry's complaints only began "to scratch
But scratching the surface
is the only view yet available of what may be the
most lasting monument to the US invasion and
occupation of Iraq. As of now, only a handful of
authorized State Department managers and
contractors, along with First Kuwaiti workers and
contractors, are officially allowed inside the
project's walls. No journalist has ever been
allowed access to the sprawling 42-hectare site
with towering construction cranes raising their
necks along the skyline.
Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based
in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at