Friday, August 26, 2011

Trafficked to Baghdad’s Green Zone

Ukrainian and Bulgarian workers trafficked to the Green Zone in Iraq have stayed even though their construction job has stopped, protesting to receive their unpaid wages. Last June, Sri Lankan workers in a similar situation threatened mass suicide until the Iraqi government paid them each $3,000 and sent them home.

Trafficked to Baghdad’s Green Zone
By Rebecca Murray

BAGHDAD, Aug 25, 2011 (IPS) - Ukrainian and Bulgarian workers are currently camped out on a construction site of half-built luxury villas in Baghdad’s elite "Green Zone" – a vast security enclave housing government offices, embassies and international NGOs - demanding their salaries before being shipped back home.

Although the 2005 Iraqi constitution bans human trafficking, Iraq has no anti-trafficking law that prosecutes offenders on the books. Since 2008 an inter-ministerial task force has been negotiating a draft law for parliamentary approval.

Over 200 foreign labourers began work on the prestigious Arab League Summit housing site at the beginning of the year, but construction was halted in April due to turmoil throughout the Middle East.

However, 35 workers have stayed on, desperate to receive their unpaid wages. Crowded into a rudimentary hall where they live and sleep, they have no legal working papers and little food and water in Iraq’s intense summer heat.

Their handmade signs posted on the construction site fence a couple weeks ago begged attention. "Please help we are in trouble", said one, while another pleaded: "SOS Ukrainian Workers".

The Salar Group, a Turkish company contracted to build the high-profile project, as well as the five-star Baghdad Hotel, tore down the protest signs, and insist they have continued to drop off food supplies based on "humanitarian grounds".

Yuri, a Ukrainian worker on the site, says Salar’s Kurdish subcontractor, Noble House, lured them to Baghdad promising monthly salaries of 2,500 dollars a month. Most of the men, unemployed with families in an economically depressed Ukraine, jumped at the chance.

They crossed the northern Iraqi border by bus in January, where they met Salar representatives, had a 15-day visit visa stamped in their passports, and signed contracts for a lower wage than initially promised. For the next four months the labourers worked 12 to 16 hours a day, Yuri says.

"Every month they told us they would pay us – but after one month they said, wait, we have a situation, no money, then again, no money – tomorrow, tomorrow…"

The International Organisation for Migration discovered the workers’ site on Aug. 4, and has since mounted a campaign to obtain compensation, and for the Iraqi government to implement labour laws.

"I would really like to see the government involved – both law enforcement and the Ministry of Labour," says IOM officer Livia Styp-Rekowska. "I hope the government can pressure the company to pay compensation to the workers."

But Ymer Ocac, Salar’s country manager, claims that Noble House illegally absconded with an advance payment of over a million dollars, and denies Salar is accountable for their subcontractor’s actions. Most of the initial workers have returned home without monies owed.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Samer Muscati disagrees. "Just because you subcontract some part of your work away you can’t subcontract your responsibility to what happens, especially the workers… There should be provisions that the Iraqi government can use to deal with people engaging in fraud and exploitation."

Dara Hassa Rashid, deputy minister for labour and social affairs, says he is "shocked" to hear about the Ukrainian workers case, and demanded it be formally brought to the labour ministry’s attention. "This is called trafficking…corruption is everywhere," he says.

"According to Iraqi law and the work permit procedure, this is illegal," the deputy minister says. "The Salar Company is responsible for this contract – they are the people who signed the contract and they have breached this country’s law. They should have directed their sub-contractor to the ministry of labour. The contractor should pay national insurance. They do illegal things by not paying."

The labour ministry estimates current domestic unemployment rate for Iraqis is around 15 percent, although under-employment could be three times as high.

Human trafficking to Iraq has flourished amidst years of devastating violence and chaos, with the mass influx of contractors and availability of cheap migrant labour, mostly from South-East Asia, as well Eastern Europe and Africa.

In June this year, 41 Sri Lankan construction workers threatened mass suicide in southern Iraq after working unpaid by their Lebanese employer for over two years. The Iraqi government intervened, paid the workers 3,000 dollars each, and flew them home.

A 2010 human rights report issued by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the Officer of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) says: "Fraudulent employment agencies in the migrant workers’ countries of origin, unscrupulous employers in Iraq, overwhelmed or unresponsive Iraqi state institutions, and a lack of diplomatic representations of the workers’ home countries in Iraq all contribute to an environment where abuse and exploitation of migrant workers can take place."

Although statistics are difficult to track, on a global level IOM estimates up to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually, with many more trafficked within borders.

Sex trafficking of predominantly Iraqi females is also rife within Iraqi borders, as well as to major destination points in Syria and Gulf states.

In reaction to the mounting outcry against trafficking, the Jordanian government, in conjunction with IOM, hosted a regional conference for Arab League countries this past spring. This was a starting point for an Arab counter-trafficking strategy, which includes the development of a database and co- ordination of national efforts to identify and protect victims.

However, for exploited workers like the Ukrainians and Bulgarians, who alerted their embassies to their dire situation months ago, talk is not enough.

"There must be recourse under Iraqi law to mitigate the situation," asserts HRW’s Samer Muscati. "Unfortunately what we are saying is the government is either unwilling or unable to address migrant worker complaints. It goes back to the whole issue of trafficking… The government needs to take this issue more seriously." (END)

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