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In privatized US war, foreigners do most of dying

23 May 2007
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
The war in Iraq is killing nine civilian contractors a week on average, roughly three times the rate of last year, and U.S. government statistics show that non-Americans do most of the dying.
The contractors -- mostly Iraqis and nationals from more than 30 developing nations -- perform jobs from guarding senior U.S. officials to translating, cooking meals, driving trucks, cleaning toilets and servicing weapons systems and computers.
For every American civilian killed in Iraq in the first four months of this year, according to the statistics, four foreign contract workers died.
Official figures show that 916 civilian contractors died from the beginning of the U.S.-led war in March 2003 to April 2007 -- at a steadily accelerating pace.
Of those killed, 224 were U.S. citizens, according to a count provided by the Department of Labor to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).
In comparison, the U.S. military death toll stood at more than 3,400 by the end of April.
Rising contractor casualties reflect increased insurgent attacks on "soft targets" and the relentless growth of private security companies which now field close to 130,000 contractors who support 150,000 U.S. troops -- an unprecedented ratio in modern U.S. history.
"Contractors have provided the people, the capability and the capital equipment that has made reconstruction and indeed the entire war effort possible," said SIGIR assistant inspector general Joseph McDermott. "The reconstruction program in Iraq has been carried out literally under enemy fire."
Contractor deaths are recorded by the Department of Labor on the basis of claims filed under an insurance policy, the Defense Base Act, that all U.S. government contractors and subcontractors working outside the United States must take out for their civilian employees.
It was the first time that the Labor Department had broken out the number of Americans killed. In previous years, it said its database was not set up to track nationalities.
Complaints over pay, conditions
No single government agency keeps track of how many nationalities work alongside the U.S. military but officials say the overwhelming majority are Iraqis and TCNs (third country nationals) from developing nations as far apart as Chile and Nepal, Colombia and India, Fiji and El Salvador.
Filipinos make up one of the largest single groups -- 7,000 by one count -- and have been among the most vocal in complaining over disparity of pay and of working conditions inferior to those of contractors from the United States and other Western countries.
Two years ago, hundreds of Filipinos staged a strike at a U.S. camp at Taji north of Baghdad.
Complaints about low pay -- in many cases a fraction of what U.S. and other Western contractors make -- and poor conditions have also come from Ugandans, Chileans and Colombians.
Private security companies place pay disparities in the context of skill levels, training and relative income levels in the United States and developing countries. They see the search for low-cost labor as standard business practice.
"There is globalization ... as the companies simply look for the most cost-effective way of doing things," said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for 35 private security companies.
"You are looking for people who can do the job wherever you can (find them) and you pay them quite well. So an American can expect to double their salary working in Iraq and an Indian or a Bangladeshi to get 10 times their national salary by going to Iraq."
That means a Filipino might drive a truck for $500 a week along the same route an American drives his truck for $2,000 a week. The risks are the same -- high and rising: attacks on convoys have increased sharply over the past few months.
(c) Reuters 2007
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