WASHINGTON — In the past few years there have been numerous stories about unscrupulous contractors hiring people from low-wage Asian countries such as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan for work in Iraq and then exploiting them with low pay, unsafe conditions, seized passports, cramped housing, and poor food, medical care and safety gear. But generally these were stories about people hired by private contractors working for other private corporations

But new accusations are changing that. Disturbing reports have surfaced about the nearly 900 laborers being used to build the new multimillion-dollar US Embassy in Baghdad and the conditions under which they work.

The accusations are rather ironic for the administration of US President George W Bush, as the they charge that workers are being treated as virtual slave laborers, a human-rights issue the administration has previously claimed it is dedicated to combating.

The specific allegations are that the new US Embassy compound is being built by trafficked workers from Asia and Africa who were beaten and subjected to squalid living conditions. Former employees of First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co (FKTC), the contractor building the nearly 42-hectare, US$600 million embassy complex on the Tigris River scheduled for completion next month, are making some of the charges.

The embassy compound is a huge project, generally described as the biggest US embassy in the world. It was envisaged as a totally self-sustaining cluster of 21 buildings reinforced to 2.5 times usual standards. The 1,000 or more US officials who will call the new compound home will have access to a gym, swimming pool, fast-food outlets, barber and beauty shops, a food court, and a commissary.

There will also be a large-scale US Marine Corps barracks, a school, locker rooms, a warehouse, a vehicle-maintenance garage, and six apartment buildings with a total of 619 one-bedroom units. Water, electricity, and sewage-treatment plants will all be independent of Baghdad’s city utilities.

With the advantage of hindsight, this scandal was inevitable. Articles about First Kuwaiti’s problems with workers it has hired are not new. Such groups as Corpwatch, based in California, have been reporting on its problems for years.

In fact, many observers wonder how FKTC got the $592-million contract in the first place. It was awarded to it by the US State Department in the summer of 2005. Many of its competitors, such as Framaco, Parsons, Fluor and the Sandi Group, which have established track records for building secure embassies or large-scale construction projects, were viewed as possessing far stronger experience. Many contractors believe that a high-level decision was made to favor a Kuwait-based firm in appreciation for that country’s support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Investigations by the State Department’s inspector general and his counterpart in the US military in Iraq found no evidence of wrongdoing. However, the State Department inspector general, Howard Krongard, did acknowledge that recruiters in foreign countries may have misled potential workers about the pay and living conditions and said he had told the US Justice Department about the situation. The Justice Department has also launched a preliminary inquiry into these allegations, just to see if they warrant any further investigation.

But during testimony before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee last Thursday, Rory Mayberry, a former subcontract employee of the FKTC, said he believes that at least 52 Philippine nationals had been kidnapped to work on the embassy project. He testified:

Mr Chairman, when the airplane took off and the captain announced that we were heading to Baghdad, all you-know-what broke out on the airplane. The men started shouting; it wasn’t until the security guy working for First Kuwaiti waved an MP5 [submachine-gun] in the air that the men settled down. They realized that they had no other choice but to go to Baghdad . . .

I’ve read the State Department inspector general’s report on the construction of the embassy. Mr Chairman, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. This is a cover-up and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to set the record straight.

Let me spell it out clearly. I believe these men were kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work on the US Embassy. They had no passports because they were confiscated at the Kuwait airport. When the airplane touched down at Baghdad airport, they were loaded into buses and taken away. Later, I found that they were being smuggled into the Green Zone. They had no IDs, no passports, nothing. They were being smuggled in past US security forces. I had a trailer all to myself in the Green Zone. But they were packed 25 to 30 in a trailer, and every day they went out to work on the construction of the embassy without the proper safety equipment.

Another former employee, John Owens, who worked as a general foreman from November 2005 to June 2006, said conditions were deplorable, “beyond what even a working man should tolerate”.

The contract for these workers said they had to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with some time off on Friday for prayers. A few people from India told me they were making $240 a month. A guy from Sierra Leone got paid $300 a month. A Pakistani worker told me he got $900 a month, but that he had to pay additional costs for their work permits and visas, and that all told he was making about $300 a month after those costs.

Many of the workers were verbally and physically abused, intimidated, and had their salary docked for as much as three days’ pay for reasons such as being five minutes late, sitting down on the job, and other crazy stuff. Because I was the only American on-site working for First Kuwaiti, many of the workers thought I had the power to help them with their problems. Workers often came to me and told me they hadn’t been paid overtime or that their salary had been shorted. They also came to me with their health problems, asking me if I could go off-site and get them some medication.

It is not uncommon for a construction company to use native workers or even foreign workers to build an embassy. I witnessed this at the other embassy-construction sites I have worked on. However, I believe that if more Americans had been on-site at this embassy, the abuses I witnessed would not have been taking place. No American company would treat people the way I saw those people being treated. As I think about it, given the size of this job, my experience tells me that [the] State Department would usually have far more American staff members on hand to oversee the construction project.

FKTC did not send an official to testify at the hearing. But in a written statement, it denied the allegations about workers being mistreated and said it was doing a good job against the difficult backdrop of rising violence. First Kuwaiti is still a US contractor and working on embassy projects in Asia and Africa.

It is worth bearing in mind, regarding wages paid to workers, that the Bush administration had previously suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which required contractors to pay “prevailing wages” for labor used to fulfill government contracts.

Another irony regarding the embassy is that like much US planning in Iraq, it was conceived nearly three years ago on the optimistic assumption that stability was around the corner, and that the military effort would gradually draw down, leaving behind a vast array of civilian experts who would remain intimately engaged in Iraqi state-building. That assumption is no longer valid.

The embassy site is also within easy range of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim militants, whose attacks on the Green Zone are becoming more frequent and deadly, which helps explain the concern when, in a security breach, architectural plans for the compound were briefly posted on the Internet in May.