Kurdistan and the Global Commute

Stephen DeAngelis

January 3, 2008

I have written several posts about the global commute (which involves the movement of people and jobs around the globe). In times past, the only way to match jobs and people was to physically move one or the other. That created some unhappiness, especially in countries that lost good paying manufacturing jobs to lower cost countries. The international movement of people is, of course, nothing new. America was built by emigrants looking for a better life. While there are upsides to the global commute, workers desperate to find good paying jobs abroad are often victims of unscrupulous employment agencies. Such victims are the focus of an article by Michael Kamber [“Shame of Imported Labor in Kurdish North of Iraq,” New York Times, 29 December 2007]. His article begins with harrowing tale of Filipino workers trying to escape being held as captive workers in Kurdistan.

“The tiny Filipino woman’s hands trembled. She was in hiding, fearing capture at any moment. She and a friend had come to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish north as guest workers six months earlier. Now they worried they would be forcibly returned to Erbil, where they had been locked in a house for a month and made to work for free, they said, after their passports, cellphones and plane tickets were taken away. The two had escaped by begging their captor to let them attend church, then making contact with other Filipino workers, who spirited them away.”

Unfortunately, this scene plays out all around the world, including in the United States. Human trafficking is an age-old problem. Nowadays it is more likely that people will be lured from their homes with promises of good jobs and good pay than being forcibly removed by slavers. While means may have changed, the results remain much the same.

“Nearly all foreign workers interviewed over a two-week period [in Kurdistan] said they had been deceived by unscrupulous agents who arrange the journeys. Unable to communicate, some arrive not knowing what country they are in. Once here, their passports are seized by their employment agencies, and they are unable to go home. Some are satisfied with their decision to come here, but agents’ fees are high, often as much as two years’ wages. To come up with the money, many borrow at high interest rates and find that their wages are equal only to the interest. In essence, they say, they end up working for free.”

A few years ago offers of good jobs in Kurdistan would have been scoffed at, but the current economic boom there makes such promises believable.

“Thousands of foreign workers have come to the Kurdish districts in the last three years, a huge turnaround for a place that had hardly any before, making it one of the fastest-growing Middle Eastern destinations for the world’s impoverished. They come from Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Somalia, supporting an economic boom here that is transforming Kurdish society. … While war rages to the south, mile after mile of new buildings are rising here, and wages for Kurds have risen sevenfold since 2003. Billions of dollars in investment are flowing in from Turkey and the United States, and large-scale oil exploration has just begun. For the Kurds — guest workers themselves in Europe for generations — the newly arrived Asians and Africans are met with ambivalence. There are too few Kurds to take all the low-paying menial jobs, and many are uncomfortable hiring local Arabs, given the longstanding animosity between the groups.”

More often than not, foreigners in Kurdistan (as elsewhere — including the United States) are given jobs that local citizens refuse to fill. Honest pay, however, does not follow honest work. While many people recognize the problem, no one is willing to assume responsibility for it.

“For the city [of Sulaimaniya], the guest workers fill a manpower shortage while saving money. ‘We need 1,500 cleaners; we have 350,’ said Razgar Ahmed Hussein, Sulaimaniya’s director of cleaning operations. ‘I never wanted to bring foreign workers to this city, but we had no other option. Kurds do not want the jobs.’ The city pays the local Lion Gate agency $325 per month for each cleaner. ‘The company takes more than half of that,’ Mr. Hussein said. ‘It’s not a fair arrangement. Groups of Bangladeshis have tried to run away to Turkey. If you pay them what they need, they won’t run away. Three months ago the situation was so bad, they were living in a garage, their food was so little. They were begging for money in the street.’ Lion Gate officials said conditions had never been bad and were getting better. ‘We pay for the workers’ housing, food, electricity and plane tickets,’ said Nizar Mustafa Chawjwan, director of the company’s Sulaimaniya office. ‘We take care of the workers’ health, and we have brought a cook from Bangladesh for them.’ As for allegations that Lion Gate business partners in Bangladesh cheated workers, Mr. Chawjwan said, ‘If Bangladeshi agents take money from them, we don’t know anything about the deals they make over there.’ Nisha Varia, an investigator with Human Rights Watch, said the combination of unscrupulous brokers in the workers’ home countries and labor practices in Kurdistan left the workers with few options. ‘Each side denies that it knows what other is doing,’ she said.”

Every possible tactic, including bait and switch, is used to get foreign workers out of their home countries and on planes destined to places where they are met only with harsh working conditions and broken promises. To be fair, some situations do work out.

“Eva Enju is one of the Indonesian women in demand here. This fall, shortly after her 18th birthday, she arrived here believing she had landed in Turkey. She makes $150 a month and has had the good luck to be placed as a maid with Latifah Noori, a kind and funny 75-year-old who is partly paralyzed. ‘I came here so that I could save money to buy a house,’ Ms. Enju explained. Ms. Noori says Ms. Enju has been a godsend, working around the clock without complaint. ‘Enju has no one here,’ she said. ‘She has just me to serve.'”

Indonesian workers are in demand because they are Muslim and face less racial discrimination than workers with darker skins, like those from Bangladesh or Africa. Without a government agency to regulate and enforce working conditions, things are unlikely to change.