Poor Migrants Work in Iraqi Netherworld

Times Staff Writer

Ramesh Khadka began the journey to his slaughter in this valley of rivers, where green rice terraces march up the mountains like stairs toward the heavens.

After passing among a series of shadowy, indifferent middlemen, he finished it a month later in a dusty ditch in western Iraq.

There, bound and helpless, the teenager was shot three times in the back of the head by insurgents, his execution and that of 11 of his countrymen captured on videotape.

The 19-year-old and his colleagues were on their way to jobs at a U.S. military base in Al Anbar province when they were kidnapped. The killings last year remain the worst case of violence against private contractors in the Iraq war.


The incident and its aftermath raise troubling questions about America’s reliance on the world’s poorest people to do the dirtiest jobs in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Contractors working for the United States, including KBR, a Houston-based subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., have brought tens of thousands of workers into Iraq from impoverished countries such as Nepal, the Philippines and Bangladesh to do menial jobs, from cooking and serving food to cleaning toilets.

In relying on a workforce of third-country nationals, however, the U.S. has embraced a system of labor migration rife with abuse, corruption and exploitation, according to dozens of contractors, migrant workers, labor officials and advocates interviewed in four countries.

The system revolves around so-called labor brokers, whose numbers have exploded during the last decade in the Middle East and Asia. Such agencies take advantage of porous borders and rising global demand for cheap labor to move poor workers from one country to low-paying jobs in another.

Although millions of Iraqis are desperate for jobs, the U.S. military requires that contractors such as KBR hire foreigners to work at bases to avoid the possibility of insurgent infiltration.

Willing to work anywhere, the laborers often take out usurious loans to pay the agencies a finder’s fee for the overseas jobs. Once abroad, the workers find themselves with few protections and uncertain legal status.

In Iraq, the vulnerability of such workers is heightened. Neither the U.S. nor Iraq has an adequate system for protecting their rights, labor advocates say.

Violence is the greatest risk. At least a third of the 255 contractors reported killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 came from Second or Third World countries, according to a Times analysis of data maintained by a website that tracks contractor deaths.

The enforcement of labor rights appears virtually nonexistent. In the case involving Khadka, for example, it appears that the Nepalese were headed to work for a Jordanian-based subcontractor to KBR, family members and labor agency officials say.

If true, all 12 men should have been covered by generous death benefits required by federal law for anyone working for a U.S. contractor, even indirectly, say insurance and legal experts. But their families have received no such payments.

After questions from The Times, KBR said it would investigate whether benefits were owed. KBR is the largest employer in Iraq of third-country nationals, with about 25,000 workers, typically through Middle Eastern subcontractors.

Because of the danger of exploitation, some labor-exporting countries, such as the Philippines and Nepal, have forbidden their nationals to work in Iraq. But labor brokers bring in such workers using loopholes in a system with almost no regulation. An estimated 5,000 Nepalese work in Iraq.

Labor advocates say the practice amounts to modern-day indentured servitude, funded by U.S. taxpayers.

“This is 2005. This is a sort of slave trade,” said Majed Habashneh, undersecretary for Jordan’s Labor Ministry, which has struggled to contain a wave of people passing into Iraq. “No one is taking care of the human rights of these people. Who will take responsibility?”

Lack of Opportunity

Khadka, a dark-haired young man with almond-shaped eyes, grew up in a mud and brick home on the outskirts of Lele, one of seven children in a poor farming family.

The village is a place of astonishing beauty an hour south of Katmandu, on a potholed road surrounded by low mountains and rice fields so green they seem to be lighted from within. Water buffalo wander the streets. Fat golden dragonflies buzz through the air. Moss-covered shrines to Hindu deities dot the roadside.

There is not much work in a village like this in Nepal, one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Unemployment is compounded by a Maoist insurgency that has killed more than 12,500 people since 1996. Rebels frequently kidnap young men as recruits, providing impetus to flee to cities and abroad for work.

Khadka was working at a hotel in Katmandu for $38 a month when he learned of job opportunities overseas from Bala Gam Piri, the owner of the employment agency Moonlight Manpower, said family members and officials with the Nepal Assn. of Foreign Employment Agencies, a trade group. Piri is believed to have fled Nepal after the killings, which set off riots in the capital. He could not be located for comment.

The agencies are a booming business in Nepal. There were fewer than a dozen a decade ago; more than 530 now exist, according to statistics maintained by the association. Although most are described as legitimate businesses, scores have been closed for labor law violations.

Nepalese workers are prized by overseas employers for two reasons. First, Nepalese trained as soldiers by the British military, who are known as Gurkas, have the experience sought by private security contractors. In Iraq, Nepalese protect the Baghdad airport and parts of the city’s fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government. Second, Nepalese have a reputation as hard workers who are less likely to complain than laborers from other poor countries.

“Nepalese don’t make too many demands. There’s no ‘I want this, I want that, I want water.’ None of this,” said Bigyan Pradhan, an agency owner and the spokesman for the association.

Piri promised Khadka $200 a month as a cook with the U.S. Army, although it was unclear where the job would be, the family said. In return, Khadka had to pay $3,000, plus hand over his passport to Piri to make sure he couldn’t run away.

The family went to wealthy neighbors to borrow the money, paying annual interest of 24%. His father told him not to go. But Khadka was an independent teenager who dreamed of making enough to build a concrete house next to his family’s crumbling mud-daubed home.

One recent cloudy day, Jit Bahadur Khadka, the young man’s father, sat cross-legged in front of his home and explained his son’s insistence on leaving Nepal. Despite his tattered gray vest and pants stained with dirt from the fields, he had an air of solemn dignity.

For Nepalese, working abroad has become part of the fabric of life. The money they send home accounts for more than one-fifth of the country’s tiny economy. Even folk songs have adopted the language of loss, with one popular tune a lament about a lover who cannot be contacted at his job in faraway Japan.

Khadka joined the diaspora on June 29, 2004, boarding a plane for the first time in his life.

“His last words were: ‘I’m flying now. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back in a few years,’ ” his father said, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. “I told him, ‘Wait. I’ll send you anywhere.’ But he didn’t want to wait. He wanted to make something of himself.”

Stopover in Jordan

As Piri was gathering the workers in Nepal, Hayder Aliam was in Jordan helping arrange their transport to Amman.

Aliam is the office manager for Morning Star, a Jordanian employment agency that imports laborers by working with recruiting agencies in poor countries.

Inside Aliam’s office in a busy commercial district, women from Indonesia and the Philippines stand in corners while wealthy Jordanians sit in overstuffed leather chairs, sorting stacks of files with job candidate applications.

In class-conscious Amman, the nationality of your domestic help carries a certain status. Filipinas are the most desirable, and thus most expensive, followed by Indonesians and Sri Lankans.

The Nepalese have one advantage, however: Unlike other nationalities, Nepalese do not need a visa before their arrival in Jordan. Thus, when a KBR subcontractor approached Morning Star with an urgent need for workers, the company immediately thought of Nepal, Aliam said.

Morning Star and Moonlight worked together to fill the order. Although Morning Star normally only imports domestic servants for Jordan, the lure of a $200 fee for each Nepalese for Iraq proved too much to resist.

“Iraq was an exception,” Aliam said. “It became a matter of money. It was a time to profit.”

The identity of the subcontractor remains unclear. Aliam said the men were working for a company called Daoud & Partners, which holds a catering and laundry subcontract with KBR. In early news accounts, however, another Morning Star employee identified the subcontractor as Besharat & Partners, a construction firm. In an interview, a Daoud official who did not want his name used because of the sensitivity of the issue denied any connection to the workers. Besharat & Partners could not be located.

The subcontractor collected the workers at the Amman airport for transport directly into Iraq, Aliam said. From there, he said, the Nepalese were taken to a convoy of vans bound for the long, dangerous road from Jordan into western Iraq.

What happened next is unknown. The men simply vanished.

Then, on Aug. 20, 2004, Radhika Khadka was at home when a neighbor told her about a grainy Internet video being broadcast repeatedly on Nepalese television.

There, Radhika, 55, could see her son crammed into a room with the 11 other men holding their passports in front of them. One of the men, with an American flag draped across his chest, read from a statement in halting English.

He said the group had been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents who called themselves the Ansar al Sunna Army.

“They said that the situation is not dangerous in Iraq, but we saw the opposite when we entered,” the man said. “We ask anyone coming to Iraq not to be cheated by the high salary because they are false and America is lying.”

When the camera panned over her son, she saw the look on his face, and her heart broke.

“I felt like I had been hit by a rock,” she recalled.

The family contacted Piri, the labor broker, who said he would do everything he could to get their son back. Then he disappeared.

The Nepalese government did little. The country is so poor that it has only one embassy in the region, in Qatar, with four employees.

In desperation, the ambassador turned to Prakash Gurung, a Nepalese businessman who lives in Qatar and runs his own labor agency there. Gurung heads a committee established by the embassy to troubleshoot international labor issues.

Lacking contacts in Iraq, Gurung sent an e-mail to a Sunni Muslim group whose address he got from Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel. The group promised to try to help negotiate, but Gurung is not sure whether it did anything at all.

“Not anybody else cared about this,” Gurung said. “No other country cared.”

Eleven days after the first Internet video, a second surfaced.

This time, none of the Nepalese workers spoke, except to scream.

The first worker was laid on the ground, his throat to the sky. A hand can be seen in the video grasping a knife, slowly sawing through the man’s neck as he sputters and chokes, blood gushing from his body.

Over the next few minutes of the video, the Nepalese are brought out in pairs, laid on the ground and shot at close range. Some men double up as they are shot, their faces contorted in pain.

Khadka’s family did not watch the execution video. But a childhood friend did.

He said that he immediately recognized Khadka when he was laid in the ditch alongside a second man.

The insurgents shot three bullets into the back of Khadka’s head.

He did not appear to suffer, his friend said.

Killings Spark Riots

In Katmandu, the execution of the workers touched off a government crisis.

Protesters set upon Katmandu’s only mosque, burning it and ripping the Koran to pieces, according to local reports. They also attacked hundreds of the widely reviled employment agencies. In two days of rioting, one protester was shot to death and the government clamped down with a 24-hour curfew.

The unrest contributed to the instability that King Gyanendra later cited in dissolving the Cabinet and declaring a state of emergency that gave him absolute power in February 2005.

“All Nepalese were shocked,” said Bijaya Bishta, the editor of Shram Weekly, a newspaper focused on labor issues. “We found out that our government is very weak.”

In the days that followed, the government revoked Moonlight’s license. Seeking to quell the outrage, the government announced it would compensate the survivors. Each family was given nearly $14,000, a large sum in a country where the annual income is $279.

The Khadkas have used their money to pay off Ramesh’s debt and for Radhika’s medical expenses. She had fainting spells after the news of her son’s death and refused to leave the family’s home for seven months.

An earthy, blunt-spoken woman, Radhika has harsh words for the government, and for Piri. The government paid the money, she said, to stop the violence. But nobody ever apologized.

“If we had been big shots, they would have said that they were sorry,” she said. “But we’re poor people. We’re nobody.”

For Radhika, the violent confluence of world events that led to her son’s death remains a mystery.

“He was not a rebel, nor in the army. He was simply a worker,” she said. “He did what they told him to do. He would have swept if they’d told him to sweep, clean if they’d told him to clean a toilet. He would have done anything.”

More than a year later, the labor markets operate as usual in Iraq.

U.S. officials said they were about to include new regulations in all Defense Department contracts to prevent labor trafficking. The payment of labor broker fees is not considered trafficking, although exceptionally high fees or interest rates are illegal under U.S. trafficking laws.

Commanders “need to be vigilant to the terms and conditions of employment for individuals employed by DoD contractors,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote in a memo in September 2004. “Trafficking includes involuntary servitude and debt bondage. These trafficking practices will not be tolerated.”

In Jordan, the Labor and Interior ministries launched investigations after the killings. Morning Star was shut down for four months but allowed to reopen after promising to stop sending workers to Iraq.

Habashneh, the Jordanian labor official, said his office had struggled to prevent the transit of workers through the nation’s borders. Local migrant workers in Jordan described such business as thriving.

“We feel we need to do so much more,” Habashneh said.

For its part, KBR, the Halliburton division, says all its subcontractors are required to respect local labor laws and provide appropriate housing, medical treatment and security protection for workers.

All KBR subcontractors also must provide employees with so-called Defense Base Act insurance, a federal program that provides for medical care and death benefits worth as much as $54,000 a year to survivors.

“KBR believes that all personnel should be treated with dignity and respect, and we are committed to maintaining a work environment that fosters these principles,” Melissa Norcross, a KBR spokeswoman, said in a written response to questions.

In Nepal, the government recently announced the closure of 32 additional agencies for sending workers to Iraq. It has also proposed a labor law that would set criminal sentences for labor brokers, instead of fines.

The measure is facing strong resistance from the brokers.

“The government is feeling constrained in our resources in this department,” said Deependra Bickram Thupa, director-general of the Labor Ministry, whose windows are still shattered from last year’s riot. “The job is huge.”

Even if a new law is passed, skeptics doubt it will have much effect. First, several brokers interviewed in Katmandu said that existing laws could be bypassed easily, thanks to corruption in the government.

“There’s a lot of money and bribes,” the owner of one agency said.

Second, the international nature of the problem makes it difficult to crack down. For instance, Nepal forbids its workers to go directly to Iraq, so some Nepalese circumvent the law by traveling to India and from there to Iraq.

Finally, the Nepalese government is heavily dependent on the money its workers send home, and it gains little from objecting to abuse of its workers, which is widespread. If Nepal makes it harder to hire its workers -- by demanding higher wages, for instance -- the hiring countries will turn to another poor country, depriving Nepal of needed cash.

“If we demand too many [things], they’ll say, ‘Go to hell, we’ll go to Vietnam or Bangladesh,’ ” said Pradhan, the head of the employment trade group in Nepal. “We have to be very careful.... We are not in a strong position to bargain.”

After his death, Khadka’s family spent nearly $1,000 to have a sculpture made of the young man, whose body has never been found. The sculpture was dedicated Sept. 1, a year after he was executed.

Dozens of villagers turned out for the ceremony. The black bust was heaped with a profusion of bright red, orange and fuchsia flowers as offerings.

It is the only likeness the family has of Khadka, who never had his picture taken. The only other images of Ramesh Khadka are the blurry videotapes of his kidnapping and execution.