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Iraqi Crackdown on Foreign Workers Criticised
Iraqi construction workers in east Baghdad - but many low-skilled jobs are taken by illegal foreign labourers.
The ministry of labour has drawn criticism for launching a fierce campaign against Iraq’s legions of illegal foreign workers and those who employ them.
After the fall of Saddam regime, thousands of overseas workers were legally recruited by foreign companies who’d secured contracts worth hundreds of million of US dollars to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure. When the work ended, many remained in the country and sought illegal work.
But economists and business owners say the drive to deny them employment is a politically-motivated attempt to reduce the joblessness following a wave of street protests demanding more public sector work. They warn it is an empty gesture which will fail to have a positive economic impact.
However, the ministry of labour says it is simply implementing Saddam-era employment legislation.
According to a 1987 labour law, businessmen caught hiring illegal labourers face up to six months in prison or a fine five times the gross total income of every foreign employee they engage. A new, more progressive labour law is being drafted, but the old one, as is the case with much legislation from the Saddam period, remains on the statute books.
Some commentators are doubtful whether the labour ministry will be able to fill the void left by foreign workers if they are forced to leave.
Meanwhile, the ministry has been carrying out inspection campaigns in busy districts across Baghdad and other major cities in an attempt to convince Iraqi businessmen to dismiss foreign workers.
Majid al-Soowari, an Iraqi economist and government critic, described the crackdown as “politically motivated [and] aimed at appeasing millions of unemployed Iraqis”.
Hilal al-Tahan, a senior professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Mustansiriya, also criticised the ministry’s plan, calling it counterproductive and politicised.
There are no official statistics on how many foreign workers are in Iraq, however, Al-Soowari and the ministry of labour estimate that there are around 15,000 to 25,000, mainly Muslims from the Indian sub-continent.
"We are not responsible for the entry of those foreign workers as most of them entered through contractors and they should have been responsible for them,” Hosni Ahmad, a ministry of labour official, said. He added that in 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, also brought in overseas labour from the sub-continent to work on building the Green Zone, Baghdad International Airport and military installations among other infrastructure projects.
The CPA was the transitional government, now dissolved, which was set up by America following the fall of Saddam’s regime.
The government says it has no money to repatriate illegal foreign workers. The 1987 labour law makes no mention of repatriation, but the new bill compels employers to take responsibility for ensuring that overseas employees they hire return home after completing their contracts.
In the interim, an interior ministry source said the department was working on the possibility of granting illegal labourers a six-month temporary residency visa, and allowing their employers to deduct enough money from their salaries to repatriate them.
He conceded that for this to work, the ministry would need to carry out a statistical study on the exact number and identity of the workers - but acknowledged that it would be a challenge.
"It takes much effort and a long time to introduce new [labour] laws,” Al-Soowari said. “[But] solutions must… not just be for propaganda purposes.”
He was referring to the crackdown on foreign workers coming in the wake of protests over unemployment – currently over one million, according to government figures.
“The question here is: will [sacking] overseas workers who are hired as housemaids provide new jobs for Iraqis? It’s not going to achieve a thing,” he said.
Al-Tahan warned that the government move would have an immediate negative impact on the economy and could trigger an inflation hike.
“Business owners will have to employ Iraqis instead with higher wages, less working hours and even less productivity, taking away money from the economy,” he said, adding that the labour ministry should look at training and skill programmes for unemployed Iraqis and introducing start up loans for small-to-medium sized business start-ups as a priority.
Yunadim Kana, a member of the labour and social affairs parliamentary committee, said it was examining the government’s decision to implement the 1987 law, with members currently undecided about the merits of the move.
Iraqi businesses say enforcing the Saddam-era legislation would damage their operations.
Like most businessmen, Zaid Hadi, the manager of a popular ice-cream shop in the high-end Al-Mansoor district in Baghdad, does not want to lose his workers.
"The decisions by the ministry are always hasty, and changes are always radical," said the 23-year-old, who employs two Bangladeshi waiters, both Arabic speakers. "I got my Bengali workers into training courses on etiquette and service, and they are serious at work, unlike Iraqis."
Six major employers in Baghdad who were interviewed by IWPR said the work ethic of foreign labourers was superior to that of Iraqis.
Jamal Bilal, one of Hadi’s Bangladeshi workers, said in a mixture of Arabic and English that he is comfortable where he is and has good ties with his boss and local people.
He sends his entire 350 US dollar monthly salary to his family back home and is provided with food and accommodation by his employer, like most low-income foreign workers in Baghdad.
Mohammd Muhsin, a 41-year-old Baghdad-based businessman, who runs a recruitment agency, said he was inundated with requests to bring in maids from abroad. He receives on average 20 to 30 enquiries a day – however, has no option but to turn away customers.
In eight years, the ministry of labour has granted 44 work visas - the official total number of all low-skilled foreign workers in Iraq - to mostly Bangladeshi housemaids.
Muhsin, along with other Iraqis, believes that hiring foreign rather than Iraqi housemaids is a safer option as the country continues to grapple with sectarian violence.
Violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the peak of sectarian bloodshed in 2006 to 2007, which pitted Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods against each other. Although things are now much quieter in Baghdad, militant groups on both sides continue to carry out attacks, though many now target Iraqi security forces.
Ahmad Khalid, a 26-year old newlywed Baghdadi, is looking for a foreign maid for the same reason as Muhsin. "She won't be ethnically committed to anyone here, therefore she will be less of a security risk for my family,” he said.
Al-Soowari believes that rather than kicking foreign workers out of jobs, the government should be opening its doors to them to help rebuild Iraq.
"We need to hire foreign workers… to get things back on track, after the Iraqis failed to step up and move the economy forward,” he said, adding that even the government of Iraq could do with the expertise of foreign workers.
Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR editor in Baghdad.
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