Thousands of foreign workers have been lured to Iraq by the hope of lucrative construction work
Two Ukrainian workers wait at a construction site in Baghdad's Green Zone, where Ukrainian and Bulgarian labourers are housed. In the heavily guarded Green Zone, 35 European construction workers have languished in three crowded rooms for months without pay, living, as one said, "like animals". © Prashant Rao - AFP
Thousands of foreign workers have been lured to Iraq by the hope of lucrative construction work
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Prashant Rao, AFP
Last updated: August 25, 2011

Foreign workers stuck in Iraqi limbo

In Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, 35 European construction workers have languished in three crowded rooms for months without pay, living, as one said, "like animals".

Their story is a stark testament to Iraq's poor record on foreign labour, as post-war construction lures tens of thousands of overseas workers hoping for lucrative short-term contracts.

The 28 Ukrainians and seven Bulgarians are stranded on a project site, a short walk from parliament, the prime minister's office, embassies and international organisations, surviving on food and water from aid workers and other contractors.

One women is among the group, aged 21 to 56, which came with promises of good salaries to build facilities for an Arab League summit.

The nightmare started when the meeting was indefinitely postponed, the project put on hold and their sub-contractor absconded.

Now they're in limbo.

"We only want to get our money and go home," one of the workers told AFP, refusing, like the others, to be identified for fear of retribution. "I don't want to be here anymore...we do nothing, only wait and think."

The workers paid agents $300 to $500 to arrange jobs in Iraq. They came between December and February, expecting to make $2,000 to $2,500 per month.

After arrival, they were told to expect no more than $1,800 a month, leaving them little choice but to sign contracts to that effect with Noblehus, a firm owned by a Bulgarian and a Swede of Iraqi origin. Noblehus had subcontracted to the Turkish company Salar Group, which was awarded the main $38.5 million contract by the foreign ministry to build 22 villas.

But none have been paid since January. In April, they stopped working and now want a total $286,000 in back pay.

"We live here like animals," said one of the workers referring to the three rooms with bunk beds. "It is awful inside," he said, with reeking toilets and showers that work only the three hours a day when they have power.

They don't dare leave the international zone for fear of arrest since none hold proper visas, which they said their employers promised to arrange.

Some hung a sign in English on a chain link fence around the site: "Ukrainian workers are in trouble! Company does not pay us money 8 monthes (sic) and wants send us home without our earnings. Please help to achieve justice."

-- 'Not our fault' --

Even the football they kick around was donated while essentials like food are offered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and others.

At least six of the workers have fallen sick from unsanitary conditions, according to a private security contractor who helps them but declined to give his name.

Tens of thousands of foreign workers from around the world are toiling in post-war Iraq, which has a labour code and immigration law. But with Iraq's multitude of problems there is little monitoring, leaving migrants vulnerable and often exploited.

"What happens here happens in many other places in Iraq, but we don't have access, we don't necessarily hear about it," said Livia Styp-Rekowska, 32, an IOM official who brings the group food from the IOM canteen.

"If this is happening in the Green Zone, imagine what is happening elsewhere," she said.

The IOM -- which has been pressing Baghdad to address the problem -- has no figures on how many workers have been abandoned in Iraq, but since 2003 it has helped 7,587 non-Iraqis return home who had no means of doing so, spokesman Bertram Chambers said.

"This exploitation of migrants is probably, as far as we're concerned, the biggest unseen problem in Iraq," IOM official in Geneva Jemini Pandya said on a UN website, adding "their stories are often horrific."

Some resort to pressure tactics. In June, 30 Sri Lankan labourers hired to build a government housing complex in the southern province of Maysan staged a week-long hunger strike until authorities pledged to sue their employer and fight for their rights. They said they were promised $2,000 per month but had not seen a cent since arriving in 2009.

The group stuck in the Green Zone allege that Salar's representative in Iraq, Jotyar Sinjari, 25, reneged on a promise in July to pay a good part of what they were owed, then offered a one-off $1,000 each to return home. Of that, $200 would go to sort out visa fees and the rest for a flight ticket home, leaving little left over.

Sinjari confirmed the $1,000 offer but denied the rest. "They (Noblehus) ran away, and they didn't pay salaries," Sinjari said. "I have done as much as possible.

"It is not our fault what is going on. Why are their embassies not taking action? The Iraqi government? All of them are responsible," he said.

The rest is a Catch-22 with no clear outcome. Sinjari says Salar will sue Noblehus but the IOM says Salar Group, as the main contractor, is responsible for paying salaries if a subcontractor runs off.

The Ukrainian embassy did not respond to calls for comment. And the foreign ministry spokeswoman for Bulgaria, which has no embassy in Iraq, said by telephone that authorities had raised the matter with both Iraq and Turkey.

Earlier in August, Sofia already repatriated several dozen Bulgarians at an oil facility near the southern port city of Basra after their Iraqi employer failed to pay them, spokeswoman Vessela Tcherneva said.

Back in the Green Zone, one man admitted some of the group had gone through bouts of depression.

"I am not angry, but I am tired. Not physically, but I am tired," he said. Back home, the bank has seized his car as he couldn't keep up loan repayments.

The security contractor helping them pays for a mobile phone so they can telephone home but the man said he only calls once a week as has little to say.

"I tell them I am waiting for my money, but I don't talk about the living situation here," he said. "They don't need to know."

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