US military clamps down on firms employing citizens from countries banning travel to Iraq

By Rebecca Santana, AP
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

US military investigates contractor work force

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military said Wednesday it is clamping down on contracting firms on American military bases using employees whose home countries ban travel to Iraq, raising questions about why the contractors were allowed to work in the country for so long despite the ban.

Philippines citizens have been banned since 2004 from traveling to Iraq after insurgents threatened to behead a Filipino truck driver, and officials in the Philippines say they have repeatedly asked the U.S. and other countries to respect their ban. Nepal also bans its citizens from working in Iraq due to security concerns.

Despite the ban, many citizens from Nepal and the Philippines still make the journey to Iraq, joining the tens of thousands of contractors working in jobs ranging from security to kitchen staff on bases.

U.S. Col. Richard E. Nolan, of the military’s contracting office in Iraq, said the military is investigating the firms’ work forces. Approximately 6,000 people from Nepal and the Philippines working for the Department of Defense in Iraq who could potentially be affected, he said.

Nolan says companies would have 20 days to outline a plan for ensuring their work force conforms with regulations, but there is no immediate timeline for when the workers would have to leave the country.

“We want to make sure that we give contractors enough time to do that so that it doesn’t impact our mission out here,” he said.

Nolan said the issue came to light when he received information that at least eight contractors had been left behind by their employers. When the military began trying to repatriate the eight contractors, they discovered that four were from countries that banned travel to Iraq.

News of the clampdown was first made public by the Ms. Sparky website, which bills itself as being run by an American former contractor in Iraq and often covers issues related to contractors working with the U.S. military. The website posted a memo written by Nolan outlining concerns about the contractors that had been left behind and setting a 20-day timeline for compliance. Nolan authenticated the contents of the memo to The Associated Press.

Philippine officials say there is no reliable data on the number of Filipinos in Iraq, where there is no embassy, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 workers.

“We’ve always asked the U.S. and other countries to respect our ban,” said Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos. “We have always asked them to please help us because it’s dangerous in Iraq. They’ve never been heeded until now, when they’re winding down their operations.”

Carmelita Dimzon, head of the Overseas Workers Welfare Organization — another government agency tasked with protection and promotion of welfare of Filipino workers abroad — said the Department of Foreign Affairs was coordinating with the contractors who were expected to repatriate the Filipinos from Iraq.

“We’ll be there to meet them and find out what they wish to do, if they still want to apply for overseas employment or local employment or they will opt to stay and engage in livelihood activities, then we will offer them some assistance to start up a business,” she said.

Emmanuel Geslani, a consultant of labor recruitment agencies, called on the government to lift the ban on workers in Iraq, at least partially, to allow Filipinos to keep their jobs legally.

“What will our government do now for our workers? Are they just going to let them come back without giving them a slim chance to work?”

“U.S. troops are on a countdown withdrawal stage by August of 2010 with half of the troops remaining until December 2011, which gives the Filipinos one more year to stay and maintain those bases,” he said.

Under a plan by President Barack Obama, the U.S. military will reduce the number of troops in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August; 75,000 contractors will also remain. All American forces are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.


Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.

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