I'm in between assignments and have been reviewing video and photographs from a recent reporting trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. With fellow producers Karlos Zurutuza and Borja Portuondo, we're working on a documentary and multimedia reportage about a group of Bangladeshis who have found themselves cleaning the streets of Dohuk in northern Iraq.
At one's cheery best, you could describe their situation as having the chance to have a full time job, three meals a day, a dormitory room with A/C and a colour TV to watch cricket. But their blunt reality is labour exploitation. Cheap labour exported from the developing world. Victims of a form of human trafficking and indentured servitude.
Most were duped into applying for jobs in Dubai. All of the workers we spoke to paid a local employment agency in Bangladesh for an overseas job contract, a work visa and a one way airfare - some paid as much as USD$4000. Workers told us of job offers for some sort of manual work, for example in a factory. Their promised salary would be around $USD500 per month. They would work six days a week, Friday afternoons would be free for prayers and they would also be entitled to have religious holidays.
Mohan* was close to tears as he showed me photographs of his son and wife back in Bangladesh. We sat in his cramped dormitory room that he shares with five other workers. While I tried to concentrate on what Mohan was saying and keep him in focus, I could literally feel the reverberations of anger pent up inside him.
"They lied," said Mohan. "Everything they said is lies. After coming here I found it was all false, all promises were false."
For days we had wondered about these "men in orange" who swept the streets of Dohuk. Working in pairs with brooms and a small rubbish cart, they were already on the streets when we were having our early morning chay and worked late into the evening. The same streets, everyday. We thought to ourselves: Who are these guys and how did they get here? Isn't unemployment a huge problem in Iraqi Kurdistan? We're not in Baghdad's Green Zone or on a military base, so why are foreign workers cleaning the streets in northern Iraq?
No sooner had we walked over to talk with them and find out, we were surrounded. In the space of a couple of minutes, little pieces of a big problem started to filter through.
Things started to go wrong once they had said goodbye to their families and were on their way. Yes, they had a ticket to Dubai, but that was not their final destination. Agents in Dubai then revealed they would now be going to Iraqi Kurdistan - supposedly same jobs, same salary, same contract terms and entitlements. But while in transit in Dubai, the workers were instructed to sign a new contract - a contract that some say they didn't understand or the terms were not explained properly to them. Many of the workers were also illiterate and signed contracts with a thumb print. Others refused to sign a new contract but we're trapped because they had no money to independently turn around and go home. And there was still the carrot of earning good money dangling in front of them, even though it was in Iraq. Little did they know that their dream of a good paying job was already swept away.
"The [street cleaning] job that we are doing here is totally repulsive and if we'd known that we were supposed to do this repulsive job we'd never have come here," said Mohan.
"They said after meeting with your monthly expenses here you can easily send 20,000 Taka (c.USD$270) to Bangladesh but in reality this is not at all happening."
Mohan said he only earns USD$240 a month. Less than half of what he was promised. He has to work 7 days a week. Friday afternoons are free for prayer, but he does not receive any time off for holidays. If he's careful with expenses such as telephone cards, Mohan is able to send around US$160 back home - but it's not enough to adequately support his family and repay the USD$4000 he borrowed to pay the job agency in Bangladesh. Do the sums and you can see why Mohan and his work mates are very frustrated not only with the work they are forced to do but also the pay.
After two years of work, Mohan thought that his contract was finished and wanted to move on from Dohuk. He's heard about better opportunities for workers in nearby Erbil. But there was another catch. He's trapped. He can't even leave the city limits of Dohuk. His employer claims that the contract is in fact for three years and also keeps his passport, his only indentity document, under lock and key.
Here's what my colleague Karlos Zurutuza wrote in The Diplomat about our encounter with the boss:
"Sitting in his office in the building adjacent to the dining room of the worker camp, Faris Artosh, the owner of Artosh Company, sees himself as a true ‘Kurdish patriot.’...
Artosh is dismissive of the notion that his workers are being mistreated. Regarding the complaints of the sweepers over pay and conditions, he’s quick to blame the contracting companies in Bangladesh for any irregularities. He produces a photocopy of a contract as ‘proof’ of transparency. ‘My workers enjoy free accommodation and boarding. Every six months an inspector comes from Bangladesh and he always says that my workers are better off here than back home’, he says, adding that every bedroom in the workers´ dormitory has an air-conditioner.
Artosh admits that he keeps his employees’ passports. ‘If I didn’t, many of them would try to cross the Turkish border and flee to Europe afterwards’, he explains. But, although he insists that his staff have work visas, he is unable to prove this, stating that the safe where the passports are kept can only be opened by his accountant."
"Everybody cry. Everybody cry. Everybody want their passport," said Mohan
"I strongly believe, given the chance, if I go back to Bangladesh and do some small petty job, like a small business, or if I take a job of a rickshaw puller I'll be able to earn 7-8000 Taka (c.USD$120) a month. And, I'll be able to live with my parents, wife and child, and I'll be able to live in peace. Here I'm working without anybody, my parents, my siblings... and to me it is like a prison of a different kind. I don't like at all to live in a foreign land."
As a 2009 US State Department human rights report on Iraq states:
"There is little information about trafficking in persons in the Kurdistan region. Third country nationals reportedly have been trafficked into the region to work as manual laborers, including garbage collectors, and women have been reportedly trafficked to work as prostitutes."
Though we saw a small group of young Kurds working as crews on garbage trucks, these teenagers were doing the only job they could find having been forced to leave cities such as Mosul because of ongoing violence.
It's a dirty job, and probably one that won't be profiled on the Discovery Channel unless they have an Iraq special.
Asking around town, cleaning streets for $240 a month is not a job that Kurds seem to want. To give you a comparison, you could earn more being a local security guard or traffic cop.
Despite feeling that Iraqi Kurdistan is a wealthy region, street cleaning and garbage collecting is a job that many Bangaldeshis are not proud of either. Spare a thought for workers such as Mohan who have not told their wives, or family or friends what they are actually doing in Iraq.
"I never explained the reality to my family what I'm doing here. I told them that I work in a market and I make cartons but in reality I clean the streets and garbage, dirty jobs," said Mohan. "I didn't tell anyone. None of my friends or family know what I do. I told them that I do a clean and good job in a shop ."
Perhaps on a related point about migration and work, have a read of Th!nk3-er Ladislav Kudlacek's post on the social status of immigrants.
Remittances are of course of huge importance to Bangladesh's economy - World Bank analysts predict Bangladesh's overseas workforce will send home more than $USD10 billion in 2010. Remittances to Bangladesh have increased at an average annual rate of 19 percent between 1979-2008.
There's no question that this income makes a much needed difference in the lives of the recipients for food, clothing, health care and education. It's poverty reduction in action. However, when I met people such as Mohan, I do stop to think carefully about the arguments put forth by economists for Bangladesh to keep up its high rate of exporting labour.
I think it comes down to being traumatised and what happens to a person who has to endure years of working under such conditions. Sure, not everyone has such a negative experience, but I wonder what sort of man Mohan will be when he finally goes back home? Will he still be ashamed of his time in Iraq? Will he be able to move on to a happier life?
(*Not his real name.)