Anbar: Bangladeshi Workers in Double Trouble

They are kept under lock and key by their employers and face resentment from province's unemployed.

Anbar: Bangladeshi Workers in Double Trouble

They are kept under lock and key by their employers and face resentment from province's unemployed.

Hasan’s 14-hour day starts before dawn, when he gets up to clean his employer’s house and prepare breakfast.

As one of a number of servants for a prominent family in Iraq’s western Anbar province, Hasan scrubs floors, polishes desks, baby-sits, serves tea to foreign dignitaries and even cares for the family’s pets.

Hasan has worked for the family for eight months but has never left the property to explore Ramadi, the capital of the once-volatile Anbar province. He knows little of what goes on outside of the compound, which is exactly the way his employer wants it.

The routine can be dull. But what irritates him most is the traditional Arab clothing – including a box hat and a dagger slung through his belt – he must slip into when guests arrive.

In his home country of Bangladesh, Hasan only ever saw the uniforms in movies.

“I never imagined that I would work in Iraq in the house of a VIP,” he said. “I didn’t even like to see these clothes on television, let alone wear them. But I’ve gotten used to this new situation, even with the difficulties I face.”

Hasan earns 400 US dollars per month. The pay is generous, he says, compared to the salaries of other migrant servants in the city.

As in other Iraqi cities, thousands of foreign workers are taken to Anbar to do low-wage, unskilled work. Desperate for employment, Bangladeshis are snapping up such jobs in western Iraq, despite the region’s reputation for violence.

According to the Anbar labour commission, an estimated 15,000 male and female workers have been brought to Anbar province this year. Nearly 90 per cent are Bangladeshis, who work as waiters, servants, nannies, cleaners and farmers.

Many of the foreign labourers in Anbar were employed in the United Arab Emirates until the global financial crisis hit last year, leaving unskilled employees scrambling for work.

Iraq was one of the few places offering “good jobs and good salaries”, said Khaleda, a woman from Bangladesh who works for a family in Ramadi.

The employment of foreign workers has bred resentment among some in Anbar. The provincial council estimates there are 15,000 unemployed Iraqi men in the region, a former al-Qaeda stronghold now controlled by Sunni tribes.

Some worry that unemployment may threaten security in the province, driving young men to join gangs and extremist networks. While the United States and Iraqi militaries have stemmed the flow of weapons and fighters entering Anbar from Syria, trafficking along the western border remains one of Iraq’s top security concerns.

Sunni tribes that backed insurgent groups turned on them in exchange for financial backing and power from the US military and the Iraqi government. But their new alliances made them vulnerable to retaliatory attacks, and some of Anbar’s tribal elite worry Iraqi employees cannot be trusted.

Bangladeshi workers have gained a reputation for having a strong work ethic and making few demands. More importantly, as outsiders they are reliant on their employers.

“Foreign workers don’t ask for leave, and they don’t ask to be exempted from any duties,” said Hasan’s employer. “They’ll do anything from cleaning the toilet to serving guests. And they don’t reveal the secrets in the house like Iraqi workers, who always dawdle and chat about the fortunes and personal relationships of the households they work in.”

“One of my former Iraqi workers was a spy for my ex-wife. I fired him after I found out he was telling her about my relationships and my travels,” he added with a smile. “Another servant seemed sympathetic to insurgents, so I fired him too. One can remain at ease when hiring Bangladeshi workers.”

The employer’s household is spacious and lavishly decorated, but his servants say they sleep on the floor and eat the family’s leftovers, while the gruelling work and long hours leave them exhausted.

"[My boss] or one of his assistants usually wakes me up with a kick if I’m late,” said Syed, another Bangladeshi servant in the household.

“Spitting in my face is one of worst things that I have to deal with. [My boss] doesn't use his hands, but he spits and uses bad language if he’s angry.”

Bangladeshi workers often speak English and broken Arabic. Syed says they are mocked by their employers and their guests.

“They think we can’t understand what they say,” he said. “But we have to take it because we’re paid well compared to what workers get in other places.”

He says he believes he has a good relationship with his employer and, defying the stereotype of a passive Bangladeshi worker, complains openly and regularly to him. He says his boss can be insulting but values his excellent tea and hubbly-bubbly.

Syed’s sister works for another elite family, but both are not allowed to leave their homes to visit.

“The only reason that I would leave this house is if I died,” he said. “Then they will send me home, at my expense.”

The employer says he is protecting his servants by keeping them inside the compound.

"Servants here don't understand how dangerous the streets are,” he said. “I’m sometimes hard on them out of concern for their own safety. My safety is connected to theirs. They could be kidnapped by the armed groups that we’ve been fighting for years and could question them about my personal life and that of my family. That's why I treat them like that."

“I haven’t left this house since the moment I arrived eight months ago, because all of the workers could be killed by armed men,” Hasan said. “[My boss] and his men are all al-Qaeda targets, which is probably one of the reasons he hires foreign workers.”

The influx of foreign workers has not sat well with some unemployed Iraqis.

Ahmad Taha, a Falluja resident, says he and seven other Iraqis were laid off from their hotel jobs and replaced by Bangladeshi workers.

“I'm out of work because of them,” he said. “I swear if I see any one of them I'm going to beat him severely, and I won’t mind going to jail.”

Anhar Ali says she was fired from her 700-dollar-per-month nanny job.

“The family that hired me brought a Bangladeshi baby-sitter, saying she doesn’t mind being with the babies for longer hours, and she is teaching them English,” she said. “But the truth is that families are hiring Bangladeshi workers for two reasons: first, the low wages, and second, they want to appear wealthy to other tribes in the province."

The foreign workers say that, even behind closed gates, they are aware of that some Anbar residents resent them. Many say they do not want to be in Iraq but have few other options.

Khaleda, the servant from Ramadi, says she earned one dollar a day collecting aluminium cans and selling them as scraps at home. She now works for 350 dollars per month, but is not allowed to leave the house without an armed guard and sleeps on the kitchen floor.

Her boss’s wife watches her like a hawk, checking on her in the middle of the night because she worries that her husband will not be faithful, she says.

Khaleda speaks and writes English and dreamed of being a nurse but could not pay for her education. Her fiancé works in Kuwait, and they hope to marry.

“I think that two years will be enough for me to get enough money to marry and have a baby,” she said. “Maybe we can save him from the suffering that we have known.”

Uthman al-Mukhtar is an IWPR trainee in Fallujah.

The names of the servants have been changed to protect their identities.
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