KUWAIT CITY—Tenison Perera frantically ducks his head behind the dashboard of his truck, mimicking how he narrowly averted death. Gripping the wheel, he explains nervously how a sniper's bullet recently pierced through his truck's cabin and zipped by his head before exiting out the front window.
Close calls like that are all in a day's work for this 44-year-old from Sri Lanka. Perera is a truck driver in war-torn Iraq and has made dozens of trips into the insurgent-filled Iraqi desert, driving supplies to American troops stationed throughout the country. Each drive is a perilous journey, as his convoys are regularly attacked by snipers and mortar bombs. Insurgents know trucks like his support the war effort, making them an easy target.
Despite the constant threat, Perera's 18-wheeler is fraught with glaring safety omissions. The glass is not bulletproof, the doors and cabin are made of flimsy metal and the large gas tank is fully exposed, a ticking time bomb should it be hit by a bullet. It's the kind of truck you'd expect to see on a highway in North America, not in a war zone.
"Many times snipers have fired at me," he says to us as he prepares to cross once again from Kuwait into Iraq with construction supplies for the mammoth new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "Thank God I've had no problems."
Dodging snipers in Iraq is not what Perera had expected when he answered an employment recruiter's ad back in Sri Lanka, one that offered a decent salary and good benefits in the safety of Kuwait. The job seemed like a perfect opportunity to raise some much-needed money for his family, so the father of three took out an $800 loan to pay the required recruitment fee and was promptly sent to the Middle East.
When he arrived, though, a Kuwaiti firm confiscated Perera's passport and told him he would have to drive trucks into Iraq to support the American war effort. They said if he didn't, he would be abandoned in the city. Alone in a strange land a long way from home, in debt, and without his passport, he didn't have a choice.
That was more than two years ago. He hasn't seen his family since.
A Pattern of Abuse
Perera's plight is one shared by thousands of other impoverished South Asian men. On a series of trips to Kuwait, we met with dozens of these men who, along with their colleagues, were recruited to the Middle East with the promise of good jobs, only to be hired by Kuwaiti transport companies driving into Iraq. For their efforts they've been poorly paid, discriminated against, denied medical insurance and many of the other benefits promised to them, and sent into the line of fire with barely any protective gear.
What's more, their exploitation is being funded by unwitting American taxpayers. Since 2001, the Houston-based construction firm KBR has had an exclusive contract with the Defense Department, called LOGCAP 3, to provide food, laundry, and other services to troops in Iraq. It's a deal the army says is worth more than $20 billion in public money.
But KBR does not use all this money itself. It has poured much of it into the elaborate series of subcontracts that now exists in Iraq, hiring hundreds of local Kuwaiti firms. Among them are those that openly flout U.S. labor laws by using cheap imported labor, withholding employee passports, and housing workers in decrepit conditions—all funded by those tax dollars.
KBR's tactics have long raised eyebrows in Washington. The Pentagon has accused the former Halliburton subsidiary of more than $1 billion in "unsupported" and "questioned" charges, and the company made headlines in December when an employee working in Iraq was allegedly raped by co-workers. But these latest allegations are among the most egregious.
According to the Department of Labor's 2007 statistics, in the first four months of last year nine civilian contractors were dying every week. For every American contractor killed, four non-Americans were dying. Since the war began, the department says more than 1,000 contractors have lost their lives in Iraq.
The South Asian drivers are in particular danger because of the lack of protection offered to them by their companies. The drivers claim that, in addition to their poorly secured trucks, they are given no training and no body armor—unlike many of their American counterparts hired directly by KBR.
"If (American drivers) can drive a big truck, we can also. If they can drive 15 hours, we can also. What is the difference?" asks Joel, a Filipino driver who does not want us to use his last name. "The difference is that they are white and we are Asians."
Like Perera, Joel came to the Middle East after being promised a good job in Kuwait. When he arrived, the Kuwait-based Jassim Transport and Stevedoring Company nullified the contract he signed at home, Joel says, and gave him a new one written only in Arabic—which he could not read. And like Perera, he was given an ultimatum: sign or be abandoned.
"I came to this company being fooled," the father of two young daughters complains. "I received a lot of promises but they were broken."
Big Danger, Little Pay
Despite working for four years, he barely has any savings. Joel and the other drivers explain that they are paid on a sliding scale, based on their nationality. Filipinos earn as little as $4,500 a year, while Sri Lankans and Indians make barely $3,000. They eagerly show us their pay slips to prove their claims.
By comparison, American drivers working for KBR can earn as much as $100,000 for driving into Iraq.
The South Asians' salaries are scant compensation for the dangers they face. Drivers are met in Iraq by large U.S. Army convoys and are expected to drive non-stop to their destinations, often hours away. If no U.S. convoy is available, they are escorted by Iraqi troops. That makes the drivers nervous because they say the Iraqis often abandon them when insurgents attack.
The drivers are given no war-zone training, only an ominous warning before they cross the border: "Our company says to go fast," Perera explains. "They say if we go slow we will die."
What little money the drivers earn is sent home to their impoverished families. When a fellow driver is killed, they pool their remaining funds and send it to the grieving widow—a desperate act of compassion. Few of the widows ever see the insurance money promised to their husbands, the drivers say, meaning one driver's death leaves his entire family in peril.
"If they lose me, they will have a pitiful life," Joel says of his family. "Everything in Manila is so expensive."
We asked KBR about the exploitation of South Asian workers under its LOGCAP 3 contract. The company's Director of Corporate Communications Heather Browne responded by email saying KBR is a "leader" in anti-trafficking procedures.
"KBR in no way condones or tolerates unethical behavior," Browne said. "All KBR employees are expected to adhere to the company's Code of Business Conduct guidelines. When violations occur, immediate and appropriate disciplinary action is taken."
Browne said the company had no knowledge of the allegations we shared of foreign worker mistreatment by subcontractors like Jassim.
But South Asian drivers we spoke to insist discrimination against them is blatant. They explain that when in Iraq, they are not allowed to eat or sleep in the U.S. bases. Even though they can be in the country for months at a time, the drivers say they are expected to stay in their trucks—which one driver describes as being "like sardine cans." They are even told to park far away from the bases, where they are sitting ducks for insurgent attacks.
When back in Kuwait, they are crammed into dilapidated concrete camps on the outskirts of the capital. They share tiny bedrooms with old bunk beds, and are fenced in behind barbed wire walls. A Kuwaiti guard is posted at the gate.
Drivers say they are afraid to stand up for themselves. They are unaware of their rights in Kuwait, don't speak the local language, and worry their companies will throw them in jail if they complain.
Joel's employer, Jassim Transport, is one of those companies. Operating out of Kuwait City's main port, Jassim says it is one of 200 contractors hired by KBR. Founded in 1979, it is one of the country's largest transport companies.
Questions of Accountability
We met with Syed Shaheen Naqvi, Jassim's Business Development Executive. In an undercover interview recorded with a hidden camera, Naqvi admitted keeping driver passports, despite this being illegal.
"If you subcontract with us, your work will be done. How we do it is our headache," he said. "I'll do whatever I have to do, that's my headache."
Naqvi explained that Jassim has had multiple contracts with KBR, and now has 600 trucks driving through Iraq every day. He said 70 percent of the company's convoys are attacked by insurgents.
Showing us a picture of a typical Jassim truck on his computer, he confirmed that drivers are given no special protection. When asked what happens to them when a convoy is attacked, he laughed hesitantly and said, "I don't know, the drivers are lucky."
We contacted Naqvi again to explain his statements about the danger Jassim's drivers face. He had no further comment, except to deny withholding employee passports.
In 2004 the Philippines government banned its citizens from entering Iraq after a Filipino driver was kidnapped by insurgents. Since then citizens' passports have been clearly stamped "Not Valid in Iraq." But the drivers we spoke to said those orders are ignored by American officials at the Iraqi border and within U.S. bases.
The Pentagon denies this, saying that all contractors and subcontractors are expected to comply with country entry and exit requirements.
"The Department of Defense does not tolerate trafficking in persons by any contractor or subcontractor supporting a Department of Defense contract in Iraq," Pentagon spokesperson Chris Isleib said in an e-mail.
Isleib also said that while the department conducts random checks to ensure compliance with its rules, it leaves the management of employees to companies like KBR.
But it's unlikely that KBR and other contractors in Iraq could be held accountable when its subcontractors act unethically. The hundreds of contracts and subcontracts in Iraq keep American firms at arm's-length of what happens on the ground, absolving them of responsibility for how their hired firms operate.
An expert on extraterritorial jurisdiction explains that the only way KBR would be held liable for the exploitation of these South Asian drivers is if prosecutors could prove the company has had direct control over its subcontractors' hiring practices—something KBR appears careful to avoid.
"There are big questions about accountability," explains Laura Dickinson, a law professor at the University of Connecticut and former senior policy advisor to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. "There are pockets of accountability, but we don't have a fully functioning accountability system."
KBR's office in Kuwait is located in a back-alley of Kuwait City's international airport. It's behind two unmarked doors, with security guards posted at the front. Behind those doors is where company officials orchestrate the LOGCAP 3 contract.
We managed to get into the office, explaining we were interested in hiring KBR for humanitarian aid projects in Iraq. Employees there were quick to acknowledge the rampant exploitation of workers by companies in Kuwait, and to wash their hands of it.
"We don't get involved in that, it's not up to us," KBR employee Jose Maldonado said of worker exploitation in Kuwait, something he called "legal slavery."
Maldonado then added, "Don't quote me on that or I'll get fired."
Ill regard for the safety of subcontracted workers has landed U.S. defense contractors in hot water in the past. In 2006 Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, ordered all contractors to stop withholding employee passports, which he said was against U.S. trafficking laws. All contractors were ordered to undergo "trafficking in persons awareness training."
But the violations continued. One driver showed us an official work order indicating that he had been hired by Jassim to drive into Iraq for KBR on Oct. 21, 2006—six months after the Gen. Casey order. Like other drivers, he was not allowed to keep his passport.
Yet KBR continues to earn billions from the Iraq war. Along with two other companies, it's even been offered the Army's LOGCAP 4 contract, which will continue to provide logistical support to U.S. troops and is worth up to $150 billion over 10 years.
In the meantime, South Asians like Joel and Perera continue driving into Iraq, risking their lives, finding solace any way they can. Most are comforted only by the fact that they are earning money for their families, even though their tiny wages will likely never be enough to send their children to school.
Joel finds comfort in another source as well—listening to John, Paul, George and Ringo. He says playing his favorite band The Beatles while driving his truck is a much needed distraction from the dangers he faces every day, and from what his life has become.
"If you put the music loud, you won't hear the gunfire," he says. "You need that kind of music in Iraq."
Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are Nobel Peace Prize-nominated rights activists and best-selling authors. They founded Free The Children, which has built more than 500 schools in developing countries. Chris Mallinos is a Toronto-based journalist. A version of this story appeared April 6 in the Ottawa Citizen.