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Originally published December 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 3, 2008 at 9:39 AM

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Asian workers protest conditions in Iraq

About 1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti subcontractor to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or work.

McClatchy Newspapers

Other developments

Bombings kill 14: A series of bombings in northern and southern Iraq on Tuesday killed at least 14 Iraqis and injured dozens. A booby-trapped horse cart exploded at a primary school in Mosul, killing nine children.

"Chemical Ali": Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, received a second death sentence for his role in crushing a Shiite revolt in 1991, after the first Persian Gulf War.

Rights concerns: The United Nations' assistance mission in Iraq expressed concern about widespread human-rights abuses, citing issues about prisons at a time when thousands of Iraqi detainees are expected to be transferred next year from U.S. military custody to Iraqi authority.

Seattle Times news services

BAGHDAD — About 1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti subcontractor to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or work.

Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor to KBR, the Texas firm formerly known as Halliburton, hired the men, who are from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, they protested outside their compound over living conditions.

"It's really dirty," a Sri Lankan man told McClatchy Newspapers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still wants to work for Najlaa. "For all of us, there are about 12 toilets and about 10 bathrooms. The food — it's three half-liter (1-pint) bottles of water a day. Bread, cheese and jam for breakfast. Lunch is a small piece of meat, potato and rice. Dinner is rice and dal, but it's not dal," he said, referring to the lentil dish.

After McClatchy began asking questions Tuesday, the Kuwaiti contractor announced it would send them home and pay back salaries.

The laborers said they paid middlemen more than $2,000 to get to Iraq for jobs they were told would earn them $600 to $800 a month. Some of the men took out loans to cover the fees.

The men live in three warehouses with long rows of bunk beds crammed tightly together. Reporters who tried to get a better glimpse inside were ushered away by armed guards.

The conditions in which the men have been held appear to violate guidelines the U.S. military handed down in 2006 that urged contractors to deter human trafficking to the war zone by shunning recruiters that charged excessive fees. The guidelines also defined "minimum acceptable" living spaces — 50 square feet per person — and required companies to fulfill the pledges they made to employees in contracts.

A U.S. military spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq referred questions to KBR. KBR didn't answer direct questions about the warehouses but issued a two-paragraph statement. "When KBR becomes aware of potential violations of international laws regarding trafficking in persons, we work, within our authority, to remediate the problem and report the matter to proper authorities. KBR then works with authorities to rectify the matter," it said.

Reached in Kuwait, Najlaa chief executive Marwan Rizk said the company recruited the laborers for contracts it expected to begin servicing, but the work didn't materialize.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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