Several months before a U.S. construction foreman named John Owen quit in disgust over what he said was blatant abuse of foreign laborers hired to build the sprawling new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Rory Mayberry witnessed similar events when he flew to Kuwait from his home in Myrtle Creek, Ore.
The gravelly-voiced, easygoing U.S. Army veteran had previously worked in Iraq for Halliburton and the private security company Danubia. Missing the action and the big paychecks U.S. contractors draw there, Mayberry snagged a $10,000-month job with MSDS consulting company.
MSDS is a two-person, minority-owned consulting company that assists U.S. State Department managers in Washington with procurement programming. Never before had the firm offered medical services or worked in Iraq, but First Kuwaiti Owen’s employer hired MSDS on the recommendation of Jim Golden, the State Department contract official overseeing the embassy project. Within days, an agreement worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical care was signed.
The 45-year-old Mayberry, a former emergency medical technician in the U.S. Army who worked as a funeral director in Oregon, responded to a help-wanted ad placed by MSDS. The plan was that he would work as a medic attending to the construction crews on the work site in Baghdad.
Like Owen, Mayberry immediately sensed things weren’t right when he boarded a First Kuwaiti flight on March 15 to Baghdad.
At the airport in Kuwait City, Mayberry said, he saw a person behind a counter hand First Kuwaiti managers a passenger manifest, an envelope of money, and a stack of boarding passes to Dubai. The managers then handed out the boarding passes to Mayberry and 50 or so new First Kuwaiti laborers, mostly Filipinos.
“Everyone was told to tell customs and security that they were flying to Dubai,” Mayberry said in an interview. Once the group passed the guards, they went upstairs and waited by the McDonald’s for First Kuwaiti staff to unlock a door Gate 26 that led to an unmarked, aging white 52-seat jet.
“All the workers had their passports taken away by First Kuwaiti,” Mayberry claimed, and while he knew the plane was bound for Baghdad, he’s not so sure the others were aware of their destination. The Asian laborers began asking questions about why they were flying north and the jet wasn’t flying east over the ocean, he said. “I think they thought they were going to work in Dubai.”
One former First Kuwaiti supervisor acknowledged that the company holds passports of many workers in Iraq a violation of U.S. contracting.
“All of the passports are kept in the offices,” said one company insider who requested anonymity for fear of financial and personal retribution. As for distributing Dubai boarding passes for Baghdad flights, “It’s because of the travel bans,” he explained. Mayberry believes that migrant workers from the Philippines, India, and Nepal are especially vulnerable to employers like First Kuwaiti because their countries have little or no diplomatic presence in Iraq.
“If you don’t have your passport or an embassy to go to, what you do to get out of a bad situation?” he asked. “How can they go to the U.S. State Department for help if First Kuwaiti is building their embassy?”
Owen had already been working at the embassy site since late November when Mayberry arrived. The two never crossed paths, but both share similar complaints about management of the project and brutal treatment of the laborers that, at times, numbered as many as 2,500. Most are from the Philippines, India, and Pakistan. Others are from Egypt and Turkey.
The number of workers with injuries and ailments stunned Mayberry. He went to work immediately after and stayed busy around the clock for days.
Four days later, First Kuwaiti pulled him off the job after he requested an investigation of two patients who had died before he arrived from what he suspected was medical malpractice. Mayberry also recommended that the health clinics be shut down because of unsanitary conditions and mismanagement.
“There hadn’t been any follow-up on medical care. People were walking around intoxicated on pain relievers with unwrapped wounds, and there were a lot of infections,” he recalled. “The idea that there was any hygiene seemed ridiculous. I’m not sure they were even bathing.”
In reports made available to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Army, and First Kuwaiti, Mayberry listed dozens of concerns about the clinics, which he found lacking in hot water, disinfectant, hand-washing stations, properly supplied ambulances, and communication equipment. Mayberry also complained that workers’ medical records were in total disarray or nonexistent, the beds were dirty, and the support staff hired by First Kuwaiti was poorly trained.
The handling of prescription drugs especially bothered him. Many of the drugs that originated from Iraq and Kuwait were unsecured, disorganized, and unintelligibly labeled, he said in one memo. He found that the medical staff frequently misdiagnosed patients. Prescription pain killers were being handed out “like a candy store and then people were sent back to work.”
Mayberry warned that the practice could cause addiction and safety hazards. “Some were on the construction site climbing scaffolding 30 feet off the ground. I told First Kuwaiti that you don’t give painkillers to people who are running machinery and working on heavy construction and they said ‘that’s how we do it.'”
The sloppy handling of drugs may have led to the two deaths, Mayberry speculates. One worker, age 25, died in his room. The second, in his mid-30s, died at the clinic because of heart failure. Both deaths may be “medical homicide,” Mayberry says, because the patients may have been negligently prescribed improper drug treatment.
If the State Department investigated, Mayberry knows nothing of the outcome. Two State Department officials with project oversight responsibilities did not return phone calls or e-mails inquiring about Mayberry’s allegations. The reports may have been ignored, not because of his complaints, but because Mayberry is a terrible speller, a problem compounded by an Arabic translation program loaded on his computer, he says.
Owen’s account of his seven months on the job paints a similar picture to Mayberry’s. Health and safety measures were essentially nonexistent, he says. Not once did he witness a safety meeting. Once an Egyptian worker fell, broke his back, and was sent home. No one ever heard from him again. “The accident might not have happened if there was a safety program and he had known how to use a safety harness,” Owen said.
State Department officials supervising the project are aware of many such events, but apparently did nothing, he said. Once when 17 workers climbed the wall of the construction site to escape, a State Department official helped round them up and put them in “virtual lockdown,” Owen said.
Just before he resigned, hundreds of Pakistani workers went on strike in June and beat up a Lebanese manager whom they accused of harassing them. Owen estimates that 375 laborers were then sent home.
Recent First Kuwaiti employees agree that the accounts of Owen and Mayberry are accurate. One longtime supervisor claimed that 50 to 60 percent of the laborers regularly protest that First Kuwaiti “treats them like animals,” and routinely reduces their promised pay with confusing and unexplained deductions.
Another former First Kuwaiti manager, who declined to be named because of possible adverse consequences, said that Owen’s and Mayberry’s complaints only begin “to scratch the surface.”
But scratching the surface is the only view yet available of what may be the most lasting monument to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. As of now, only a handful of authorized State Department managers and contractors, along with First Kuwaiti workers and contractors, are officially allowed inside the project’s walls. No journalist has ever been allowed access to the sprawling 104-acre site with towering construction cranes raising their necks along the skyline.