Mon, Feb 19, 2007 - Page 3 News List

Feature: Vulnerable foreigners forced into labor in Iraq

SLAVE LABOR The story of 17 Sri Lankan men who paid agents to find them jobs in Dubai but ended up being held at gunpoint in Iraq is not as unusual as would be hoped


In Sri Lanka's war-torn north and east, where killings happen every day and work is nearly nonexistent, it doesn't take much to entice a man to leave.

So when an employment agency offered a steady paycheck for laboring amid Dubai's soaring glass and steel towers, 17 young Sri Lankan men paid their fee to the job brokers -- US$2,000, a small fortune on this tropical island -- and signed up.

But instead of going to work, they were locked in a room guarded by a man with a pistol. They had been sold to another agency, they were told, for US$1,200 apiece.

It took them two weeks to realize where they were: Iraq.

"We knew Iraq was dangerous, and Sri Lanka was dangerous, but at least we thought our parents will get to see our corpses if we die here," said Krishnan Piraitheepan 32, shortly after returning to Sri Lanka this month with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a Geneva-based intergovernmental organization.

Thousands of Sri Lankans, and tens of thousands of other people from such poverty-battered countries as the Philippines, India and Nepal, go to the oil-rich Middle East every year to work. The pay, usually US$200 to US$400 a month, can be many times what they would earn at home, even after the agency fees that can leave families deeply indebted.

So they become maids in Kuwait, and drivers in Saudi Arabia. They work as nannies in Dubai and Bahrain.

Some, like the 17 Sri Lankans, end up in Iraq.

While there are no reliable statistics on forced labor in Iraq, government officials and aid groups warn the case highlights the potential for abuse. The situation is further distorted in Iraq, since a number of countries that are major labor suppliers to the Middle East, including Sri Lanka, ban their citizens from traveling there.

"This case should be an eye-opener to all of us, especially the governments and the job agencies," said Priyantha Kulatunge, an IOM official helping oversee the group's return.

Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of the California-based corporate watchdog CorpWatch, estimates only a small percentage of the 30,000 to 50,000 migrant workers in Iraq are there against their will -- but many more may not have realized what it means to work in a war zone.

"Many people have claimed to be trafficked," Chatterjee said. "Probably many were, probably others discovered a situation that was dangerous."

He worries more about workers' inability to leave. With some employers still holding employee passports -- a practice the US Defense Department has forbidden for its contractors since mid-last year -- leaving a job can be extremely difficult.

When the Sri Lankans arrived in Dubai in mid-December, they were met by a representative of Arabian Express, the Colombo-based company that arranged their jobs.

The man told them they would be working elsewhere in Dubai, and put them on another plane. There was a sign on arrival saying they had landed at Irbil Airport.

"I had no idea what country Irbil is in. The only city that I knew in Iraq was Baghdad," said Karunapandy Jeyaruban, 24.

The Sri Lankans' story is not uncommon. Since 2003, the IOM has evacuated more than 6,000 foreigners "in difficult situations" from Iraq.

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