Foreign workers seeking jobs in Iraq despite perils
BAGHDAD - Haroun Hanifa uttered his favourite tune with broken Arabic as he prepared tea the Iraqi way. The 35-year-old Bangladeshi has been working in Iraq for more than four years to provide for his family, despite meagre pay and long working hours. He is among approximately 200,000 foreigner workers, many of whom are employed illegally, in Iraq despite high unemployment rates among Iraqis.
Hanifa had to borrow money to travel to Iraq. He worked different jobs in various parts of the country until he was hired as a cleaner with a real estate company in Baghdad.
“The poor economic situation at home is the reason why I came here. I have many commitments that forced me to seek work anywhere I could find. I need to save as much money as I can during my stay in Iraq,” said Hanifa, who earns $400 a month.
Like most Arab and non-Arab foreign workers in Iraq, Hanifa was engaged through an employment agency that brings foreign labour into the country.
“At the beginning, I was wary of the sectarian friction and the security situation. I had to put up with a lot of harassment and the living conditions were very poor but this has changed now and conditions are more acceptable,” he said.
In Baghdad, Bangladeshi and Indian workers can be found mainly employed in restaurants and cafeterias. They receive lower wages and work long hours without complaining publicly
“Job opportunities for foreign labour are limited to cleaning and service works, which Iraqis usually shun,” said Hanifa’s compatriot Dalor, who gave only one name. He said he was trying to make enough money to build a house in Bangladesh.
“It was very difficult in the beginning because of terrorism but things have improved and most employers are treating us humanely and with respect,” Dalor said.
Thousands of foreign workers moved to Iraq after the 2003 invasion as employees for foreign companies contracted by US forces and most worked at US military bases. After 2007, private Iraqi employment agencies imported thousands more.
Employers prefer to hire foreign workers because of their flexibility and sense of discipline, said Ahmad Sayed Ali, the owner of a contracting company.
“Usually, foreign workers don’t cause problems. They are hard workers, trustworthy and do not complain from extra work,” he said. “Whereas Iraqis, the few who accept to do menial work, have issues and create problems. They refuse to abide by the rules and sometimes they deliberately stir friction with their employers and try to blackmail them by resorting to their tribes.”
There is no figure on how many illegal workers are in Iraq but Sayed Ali estimated the number was in the thousands.
“Large numbers of foreign workers have entered Iraq illegally. They are usually brought in by specialised companies that transfer them to employment agencies in a clear violation of the law,” he said.
Competition from foreign labour is partially blamed for high unemployment rates in Iraq, which economists said was as high as 30%.
Reda Fadel, a 26-year-old unemployed Iraqi, has tried different jobs but none paid enough to sustain his family. “The pay was very low compared to the pressure and long working hours. Besides, Iraqi employers are increasingly preferring to hire foreign labour, worsening unemployment among Iraqis,” Fadel said.
Economic analyst Anas Morshed described the importation of foreign labour on a high scale as “veiled unemployment.” He warned that the foreign workers pose serious competition for Iraqis in the job market.
“For example, Bangladeshis are most favoured for cleaning work, whereas trades and shopping centres prefer to hire Syrians and other Arab nationalities,” Morshed said. “The danger here lies in the fact that certain professions will become tightly associated with certain nationalities, creating embarrassment for Iraqis working in these professions, especially unskilled jobs like cleaning and serving in restaurants.”
“Employers tend to hire foreigners for many reasons, mostly because local workers are poorly skilled, while skilled foreign labour get lower pay, accept working long hours and do not complain about it,” he added.
Many agencies bringing in foreign workers are registered with the government as travel agencies and get religious tourist visas for Asian workers, said Ammar Mon’am, spokesman for the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry.
“Their number is no less than 200,000 from different Arab and non-Arab nationalities. We are seeking to regularise their status in line with the law to ensure their rights and prevent their possible exploitation by employers,” Mon’am said.
Under the law regulating foreign labour, only firms that hire at least 50% Iraqis for their workforce can hire foreigners.