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Sierra Leonese Paid $0.50 an Hour in Iraq
December 2, 2005 9:21 AM   Subscribe

What is a "fair wage" for contractors working in Iraq? Halliburton subsidiary KBR pays subcontracted employees far more than they could earn at home, in exchange for living far from friends and family in a dangerous work environment. KBR insists their contractors adhere to all local labor laws in the country where they operate. But when that country doesn't yet have an effective or legitimate government of its own, and the workers are brought from a country with a 68% poverty rate, is that enough?
posted by justkevin (41 comments total)

 
Blame the subcontractors, not KBR/Halliburton.
posted by mrbill at 9:33 AM on December 2, 2005


Blame Bush.
posted by Witty at 9:36 AM on December 2, 2005


"Sierra Leone is an extremely poor country, with a market-based economy and a per capita income of less than $100 per year. For the last decade a violent insurgency has destroyed the local economy. The government approved a minimum wage of about $4 a week for a 40-hour work week, according to the State Department's 2004 human rights report."

And they're getting $150/month working in Iraq. I don't see anything wrong here... (other than the fact that we're in Iraq to begin with).
posted by mrbill at 9:37 AM on December 2, 2005


I dunno; my instinct is to say that so long as the employees chose to take the jobs freely, and so long as they were accurately informed about conditions and contract terms, it's fair game. They are earning something like 18x the annual income that they could earn at home...

Now, if there were deceptive practices in recruiting, that would be very worrying.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2005


Blame KBR. The U.S. military has paid them approximately $12 billion for ligistics support. Blame the U.S. military for having paid it. Blame the U.S. taxpayers for putting up with this. Blame George Bush because the buck stops somewhere.
posted by leftcoastbob at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2005


What is the total fee per hour paid to the subcontractor to provide this worker? Is it 10 times the actual cost or 100 times?
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:45 AM on December 2, 2005


Unskilled employees voluntarily work to provide $150/month which deposits directly to their original nation and family. In return they are given a $40 monthly bonus to spend as they please, free housing, free food, food clothing. From the article, "Sierra Leone is an extremely poor country with a ... per capita income of less than $100 per year ... The government approved a minimum wage of about $4 a week ... even mid-level government officials in the country earn only about $40 a month,"

This is a wonderful opportunity for these workers, and I am sure their families, after enduring a decade of civil war, are very grateful. Blame what on who?
posted by adzm at 9:54 AM on December 2, 2005


Part of the problem is that they can end up exploited.

For example the room and board might not be as 'free' as expected. If they're unhappy with their employment, what can they do? Certanly not hop on a plane and fly home.
posted by delmoi at 9:57 AM on December 2, 2005


As an aside, since military personnel were surprised at how much they were being paid, why not TIP them?
posted by adzm at 9:59 AM on December 2, 2005


And since we are allegedly in the country to help the Iraqis, why not hire them? The military did that in Viet Nam.
posted by leftcoastbob at 10:00 AM on December 2, 2005


This story raised two questions in my mind:

One, as mr_roboto points out, if workers took the jobs of their own volition with a full understanding of the terms (and there's no indication at the moment to the contrary) doesn't that imply the wage is fair? If it does, why have minimum wage laws or for that matter, any workers' rights laws at all?

Two, if you accept that these laws are necessary and important, who should set the minimum wages/employee rights of workers brought from one country to a second country to provide services for US military personnel?

According the article, Iraq would. But Iraq's a special case-- there isn't a government with the legitimate power to create labor laws.
posted by justkevin at 10:01 AM on December 2, 2005


Isn't outsourcing great? I first hated then pitied the likes of ITers in Bangalore who worked in call centres to make healthy profits for their masters. Comments that they were making a small fortune themselves compared to others were common, until you realised they were being treated like crap, working long hours in sweatshop conditions. Anyone is easily replacable.

Now in Iraq you've got Halliburton, KBR and other sub contractors making their healthy profits, with poor folk at the bottom of the food chain making little money but still more than 'their type' usually get. Saying they know what they're signing up for is morally reprehensible. Capitalism stinks.
posted by movilla at 10:14 AM on December 2, 2005


I think leftcoastbob's point is right on. Why are Iraqis not being hired? Why are workers being imported? The unemployment rate in Iraq must be astronomical. It seems that low unemployment would be a precondition for stabilization. The same also applies to companies such as KBR. The new Iraqi 'government' if it wants any legitimacy, should start demanding that reconstruction contracts go to Iraqi companies. Also, seconding movilla's sentiments.
posted by slow, man at 10:29 AM on December 2, 2005


I'm not sure why Iraqis aren't being hired in this situation. Two possible reasons suggest themselves:

1.) Cost: Iraqis might demand higher wages than the Sierra Leonese. But the transportation costs would offset this somewhat.
2.) Security. The food preparation for US service personnel would be a potential avenue of attack for insurgents-- a single insurgent infiltrator with a small amount of poison could incapacitate or kill dozens.
posted by justkevin at 10:45 AM on December 2, 2005


As StickyCarpet alludes to above: did the contractors win the contracts based on rates for hiring Americans or Iraqis, or did they get contracts based on hiring lower-wage workers? The answer to that question would go a lot towards informing my opinion of this.
posted by tippiedog at 10:45 AM on December 2, 2005


The question about whether or not these workers can leave is the most important. This could be borderline trafficking, especially when they have to pay their way back, which may not be an option. There is a thin line between bonded labor, trafficking, and what's going on here. It doesn't matter whether or not these workers volunteered, it matters whether or not they can leave.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:47 AM on December 2, 2005


From the article: "The catalyst for having to go to Sierra Leone to recruit in the first was that the respective governments of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines have all put an official ban on their nationals working or traveling in Iraq," states an e-mail sent to Kelly from the Sierra Leone recruiter.

This is fucked up, especially considering this:

Numbering in the millions, Iraq's unemployed have found little refuge in an economy derailed by two years of relentless insurgent attacks. Many have not had steady jobs since the United States dissolved the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion. And U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that every young man without work is a potential recruit for insurgents who pay as little as $50 to people who plant explosives on a highway or shoot a policeman.
(via WashingtonPost 6/20/05)
posted by slow, man at 11:06 AM on December 2, 2005


Third-world mercenaries? Christ, this is the Walmartization of war.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:08 AM on December 2, 2005


Now in Iraq you've got Halliburton, KBR and other sub contractors making their healthy profits, with poor folk at the bottom of the food chain making little money but still more than 'their type' usually get. Saying they know what they're signing up for is morally reprehensible. Capitalism stinks.

Yeah, they're much better off starving in squalid poverty in Sierra Leone. If they're lucky, maybe they'll get killed in the next civil war!

Third-world mercenaries?

You didn't even bother to read the article, did you? These aren't mecenaries; they're unskilled manual laborors working kitchen and custodial jobs.

For example the room and board might not be as 'free' as expected. If they're unhappy with their employment, what can they do? Certanly not hop on a plane and fly home.

This is an excellent point. The contracts should come with an option for employee-initiated termination, along with a flight home, at any time. This might even bump the wages up a bit, as the subcontractors would want to minimize early terminations.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:16 AM on December 2, 2005


Yeah, they're much better off starving in squalid poverty in Sierra Leone. If they're lucky, maybe they'll get killed in the next civil war!

mr_roboto, I see your point--Sierra Leone is certainly no rose garden--but why does this have to be an either/or situation? Either get killed in your country, or make shitty wages and work 84-hour weeks, and have no right to organize in this one? KBR can certainly afford to pay higher wages, they have a guaranteed government contract for $12 Billion and have no competition. Also, what this discussion has ignored so far is the part of the article that says the workers can be fired this for any whiff of union activity. This practice is illegal in the US (at least in theory). The general question then, is, should corporations have to follow the laws (labor laws in this case) of their country of origin, when doing business outside of this country? I think so.

And again, since we have now 'liberated' Iraq, shouldn't their companies and workers be doing the work?
posted by slow, man at 11:38 AM on December 2, 2005


KBR can certainly afford to pay higher wages, they have a guaranteed government contract for $12 Billion and have no competition.

Thing is, if they're going to pay first-world wages, they wouldn't take workers from SL. So it is kind of either-or in that respect.

And again, since we have now 'liberated' Iraq, shouldn't their companies and workers be doing the work?

The way I read it is these are support jobs for the US military.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:43 AM on December 2, 2005


But don't you think every worker should be paid 'first-world wages'? Especially when it's a 'first-world' company with a guaranteed $12B revenue doing the hiring, and when 'first-world wages' start at $5-6/hr, and often lower for illegal immigrants?

The way I read it is these are support jobs for the US military.

I'm not sure how this follows from my question, could you elaborate?
posted by slow, man at 11:51 AM on December 2, 2005


But don't you think every worker should be paid 'first-world wages'?

I dunno. I think the workers from SL are definitely better off with the subcontractors not paying first world wages, since they wouldn't have jobs otherwise. On balance, as a matter of public policy, I'm undecided.

I'm not sure how this follows from my question, could you elaborate?

I just meant that these aren't general public-sector jobs in Iraq: they're U.S. military support jobs, so it's not unusual to see them being filled by U.S. military contractors.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2005


I dunno. I think the workers from SL are definitely better off with the subcontractors not paying first world wages, since they wouldn't have jobs otherwise.

Maybe so. Although I think historically corporations like to put this idea into people's heads that wages need to be low, or people will lose their jobs. This might be true in some cases, but I think Henry Ford proved a long time ago that high wages and profitablity did not have to be at odds with each other.

I just meant that these aren't general public-sector jobs in Iraq: they're U.S. military support jobs, so it's not unusual to see them being filled by U.S. military contractors.

The point I'm trying to make is that it's bullshit that all of the reconstruction jobs are going to US companies such as KBR, especially when unemployment in Iraq is part of what is fueling the insurgency.
posted by slow, man at 12:13 PM on December 2, 2005


Let me rephrase that: The point I'm trying to make is that it's fucked up that all of the reconstruction contracts are going to US companies such as KBR, and reconstruction jobs are going to people other than Iraqi workers, especially when unemployment in Iraq is part of what is fueling attacks on US troops and Iraqi civilians.
posted by slow, man at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2005


Wages, schmages.

It's all about the profit margins!

Next thing you know someone will mention health benefits and pensions! Buncha' commies! :-)
posted by nofundy at 12:23 PM on December 2, 2005


I think Henry Ford proved a long time ago that high wages and profitablity did not have to be at odds with each other.

Um...yeah.

Slow, man, the problem is this: Sure, a compamy could pay higher wages, but if they did pay "first world wages" for this work, do you think it would be Sierra Leonians (or Iraqis, for that matter) in these jobs? No, because the higher salary makes the job more attractive to more desireable workers, who can out-compete the unskilled low-wage workers for the same job.

A company that paid first world wages would fill the jobs with out-of-work auto workers from Pennsylvania, and the people who have those jobs now would be left in Sierra Leone to rot. Which outcome is better?
posted by nyterrant at 12:55 PM on December 2, 2005


"First world wages" is a meaningless term outside of the first world, the circumstances are just too different to compare them.

A "fair wage" is whatever wage the market negotiates between employees and employers, same as any other good or service. The fact that KBR is capable of paying more is irrelevant. Most people or businesses could "afford" to pay more than they currently are for pretty much anything, but why should they?

If these people are choosing freely, and there is a decent amount of competition for the jobs, then the price will be a "fair" one, end of story. This seems to be the case with these jobs, since there have been no reports of forcing people into the jobs and the high wages relative to the wages in Sierra Leon indicates that KBR is competing with buyers of labor there.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:57 PM on December 2, 2005


Movilla

Capitalism stinks.
posted by movilla
That would be why you live in the UK and wait 6 months(down from 18 months according to T. Blair) for a surgical procedure?
posted by garficher at 1:11 PM on December 2, 2005


Here's my quick reaction b4 dinner:

nyterrant: I wasn't aware Henry Ford was still alive and running Ford Motor Co. From the early 1920's-50's (from what my foggy brain remembers at least) there was a 'high wage regime' in the US, initiated by Henry Ford to cut down on labor turnover and to allow his workers to buy Ford's cars. This was an extremely successful model for workers and certainly didn't put Ford out of business. This ended when unions lost power after the 1950's. Your post about today's Ford Motor Co. isn't really relevant, w/ all due respect. I do agree with your point though that if higher wages were paid, Sierra Leoneans wouldn't have these jobs, but so what?

Bulgaroktonos: You note that 'first world wages' is a relative term, but then talk about people 'choosing freely' as if this is a neutral term. To assume that people in Sierra Leone have free choice about their economic existence is to misunderstand the global economy (and is a bit condescending also).

Anyway, it's interesting to note that you're both ignoring the points about labor organizing and the fact that Iraqi's should have these jobs.
posted by slow, man at 1:21 PM on December 2, 2005


I wasn't trying to comment on whether or not Iraqis should have these jobs, that's a different issue from wages for the people who do have these jobs. I think it would be great if they gave these jobs to Iraqis, but I also understand why it's not feasible at the current time.

Why don't people in Sierra Leon have free choice? Just like those of in the first world, they need to work to provide themselves with food, clothes etc. They must have some options because otherwise KBR wouldn't need to offer much higher wages than local employers. If you have multiple options, and you're no one is threatening you, then you have a free choice. The fact that KBR is offering a better deal than anyone else doesn't change the issue. The people of Sierra Leon have a choice, it's just that one of their choices is better than they others.

I think the condescending thing is to treat people in other cultures are if they are being exploited everytime they come in contact with Westerners. These people are getting good money. They're making four times the minimum wage back home for unskilled labor. I'm all for sticking up for the exploited, but these people aren't being exploited.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:31 PM on December 2, 2005


Garficher. That would be 6 months on the NHS and not immediately when done privately. Yep. Capitalism stinks alright!
posted by movilla at 1:54 PM on December 2, 2005


if workers took the jobs of their own volition with a full understanding of the terms

you're eighteen years old, here are your choices:
0) stay home in SL with folks; mine soil or bauxite, starve
1) work as a scab for pittance for an occupation operation for a country responsible for keeping that country in massive ruin.

and that's called 'volition,' not 'exploitation'?

A "fair wage" is whatever wage the market negotiates between employees and employers

wouldn't a fair wage (no quotes) be whatever wage the employees and employers negotiated between themselves? and since the employees aren't at the negotiating table, either in the LOGCAP contract or 'the market,' how can this be fair?

I'm just relieved that Halliburton/KBR isn't running security for the mines in SL. so far.
posted by eustatic at 2:18 PM on December 2, 2005


preempted...
posted by eustatic at 2:19 PM on December 2, 2005


Employees are at the table in the market? That's absurd, and shows a complete lack of understanding of what a market is.

Employees provide a good, labor. Employers need to buy this good, employees need to sell it. In a free market the price is determined by effects of supply and demand. That means both sides have a role in setting the price. Employees are at the table, as they don't have to accept the jobs.

The only real exploitation exists when there is not a free market, where is only one or two buyers of the good, in this case labor. If there is only one buyer for the good, this is called monopsony, but I don't think this is case here.

There are obviously plenty of people in Sierra Leon, making $4 dollars a week, and surviving. It might not be the best life in the world, but that is a viable life. KBR comes in with a better offer in terms of pay, but mainly to lure people away from those jobs in Sierra Leon that have certain other advantages(being close to family, possibly safer, etc.)
This looks like a decently competitive market to me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:28 PM on December 2, 2005



I wasn't trying to comment on whether or not Iraqis should have these jobs, that's a different issue from wages for the people who do have these jobs.

Is it? Maybe in a very strict sense, but in the context of what's going on in Iraq I don't think so. The fact that we're even discussing wages of immigrant labor in Iraq is ridiculous considering the unemployment among Iraqis.

I think it would be great if they gave these jobs to Iraqis, but I also understand why it's not feasible at the current time.

Why is this not feasible? I don't think this is as self-evident as you assume. The US has to give enormous no-bid contracts to only US companies, which do not employ Iraqis? If you understand this, please explain further.

Why don't people in Sierra Leon have free choice?

Has labor migration ever been a matter of free choice? Maybe in an economics textbook. Its more about economic conditions, or lack thereof within the home country (see Guest & Aliens by Saskia Sassen). As far as Sierra Leone: Most of the capital, Freetown, remains without electricity or running water while jobs remain as elusive as ever and huge piles of rubbish can still be seen on streets lined with tin shacks, where people live five or six to a room.

And this is the part of the country where most of the foreign aid goes to. Additionally, 50,000 people, many non-combatants, were killed during the 1990's alone. There is a significant amputee population in the country, b/c both gov't and rebel soldiers during the civil war used amputations to coerce and terrorize those in the countryside.

Many of the soldiers were children who were drugged and forced to committ atrocities against family members so that they would not be allowed back into their villages and therefore become beholden to the soldiers they were coerced into fighting with.

Also, they have a large, and rare, supply of high quality alluvial diamonds (as opposed to industrial diamonds, which cannot be used for jewelry) which are scarce in large consumer markets like the US. They are also scarce in the primary diamond trading markets of London, Antwerp, and Tel Aviv. Therefore, what is often described as civil war there (as I did myself) is largely fueled by Western demand for these diamonds.

To suggest that these people have "multiple options" upon which they strategize and pick the best one is naive. They aren't sitting down on Monster.com and choosing among their career oppurtunities and salaries. The majority of the pop. does what needs to be done to survive day to day. These jobs and "viable life" are completely shaded by you're inability to realize that you're talking (or not, in your case) about people. You're speaking about them as if they are a statistical abstraction. You're ideas/economic jargon about the world being a free meritocratic society are ridiculous. Your idea of choice assumes that all countries, markets, people, jobs, etc. are the same and consistent across the world.

I'm all for sticking up for the exploited, but these people aren't being exploited.


Exploit: 1. make use of (a resource etc.; derive benfit from 2. utilize of take advantage of (esp. a person) for one's own ends(via Oxford Ref. Dictionary) Right. KBR is just trying to help these people out.
posted by slow, man at 2:38 PM on December 2, 2005


Third-world mercenaries?

You didn't even bother to read the article, did you?


Damn. Caught on tape!
posted by five fresh fish at 2:41 PM on December 2, 2005


wow, apologies ahead for the shitty proof-read
posted by slow, man at 2:43 PM on December 2, 2005


First of all, breaking out dictionary definitions is one of the worst arguing techniques in the book, it makes you and your point, look like a freshmen debater in high school.

If we're honestly going to talk about exploitation, we need to work off a definition that is more complicated and more grounded in sound economics than that is.

Your talk about how awful the civil war there might tug at the heartstrings, but it doesn't really get to the issue at hand. There is this incredibly patronizing idea that outside of the First World, no one is able to make a sound economic decision and obviously being exploited if they ever find gainful employment.

If we want to discuss exploitation, we need to discuss these people as statistics, because that's the only way to get to economic issues like that. Amputees and child soldiers might be a great cause, but they don't really have any bearing on how people make decision to seek employment.

The question, properly framed, to determine whether or not something counts as exploitation is to look at the competition in the market for labor. I'm sure the competition in Sierra Leon is rather imperfect, but there is some. Furthermore, the pool of people seeking out of country jobs is going to much smaller than the population at large. For that pool, most of whom I think we can presume are at the high end of the employability spectrum when it comes to unskilled labor, the competition will be even better.

They might be relatively more exploited than workers in the US, in fact, they probably are. On the world wide scale of exploitation, however, they don't really seem that badly off.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2005


The only real moral outrage I'm experiencing here is the plane ticket bit. Those workers from Sierra Leone are pulling down the equivalent - for their families - of $60-75k/year (US minimum wage times five). It may not be as much as they ideally should be making in a perfectly fair and just world such as the one we do not live in, but at the end of the day it's still a good deal from their perspective. It may be exploitation but it's mutually acceptable and beneficial exploitation, plane ticket aside.

If you understand this, please explain further.

Isn't it obvious? Hiring local workers from a labor pool we've so thoroughly pissed off is begging for infiltration and sabotage.
posted by Ryvar at 2:56 PM on December 2, 2005


First of all, breaking out dictionary definitions is one of the worst arguing techniques in the book, it makes you and your point, look like a freshmen debater in high school.

Well, I guess we could get into a pissing match about whether your Macro/Micro 101 paraphrases are better than my dictionary definitions, but I think that would make us both look like high school freshmen.

Also, it's convenient that as puerile as my definition may be to you, you chose not to address its content, but me, for using it. If its truly a base definition, it shouldn't be too hard for you to refute it, right? Also, I wasn't aware that we were talking about a spectrum or 'scale' of exploitation here, from worst to best. What is at the top of the scale?

Also, you're 18th century notions of the economy as its own entity, that operates in isolation from the the political and cultural realms seems anachronistic to me and is what is going to keep you talking statistics and me political/social issues.

Anyway, I'll leave you with a final definition, since you like the last one so much Neoliberalism: "The most universal ideology in world history"--Perry Anderson

Nice to see some advocates here on the blue.
posted by slow, man at 3:29 PM on December 2, 2005


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