17 August 2007

Uganda: Askaris in Iraq Ripped Off

Kampala — NEW details have emerged on how Ugandan guards in Iraq are being fleeced and exploited by recruiting agencies. Not only are the desperate job-seekers forced to pay for fees and air tickets already paid for by the receiving company in Iraq, the recruiting agencies reportedly also take control of their bank accounts.

"This office has received complaints that you have forced every worker to have an account in a bank of your choice in which you have control," Dr. David Ogaram, the Commissioner for Labour, Employment and Industrial Relations, wrote in a letter of February 27, to the 12 recruiting agencies.

He expressed concern that the agencies were withdrawing any amount of money "as and when they wish," were making foreign exchange transfers "at their convenience" and were making deductions without informing the owners.

"Evidence availed to the office supports these complaints. The main concern here is that you are unilaterally accessing money, which is not yours, from the accounts of private clients to the bank," Ogaram wrote.

"You are deducting money from the accounts on trivial reasons without the consent of the owners of the accounts. This cannot happen without the collusion of the bank management. This is tantamount to a syndicate designed to tamper with personal accounts in the bank and is illegal."

He demanded that the agencies provide the ministry with a list of wage remittances and that money wrongfully withheld be paid back within a month.

Tampering with bank accounts is not the only thing recruiting agencies are accused of. Over 40 guards employed by Askar Security Services have sent petitions to the Speaker of Parliament and the US ambassador in Kampala complaining of exploitative practices.

"We were charged a registration fee of sh200,000. All of us paid this money. We realised afterwards that Beowulf (the receiving company in Iraq) had paid for the costs of registration to have us ready for deployment", the petition read.

"Kellen (Kayonga, MD of Askar) captures our passports and keeps them in her custody in order for us not to seek other opportunities with other companies. Kellen has also been charging some of us, who travel, replacement flight costs. Beowulf made it clear that that cost was catered for also."

They also complained that two of their colleagues were shot while on duty and were supposed to be compensated through Askar to the tune of $80,000 each. "They have never seen the money to date."

When asked for a reaction, Kayonga told Saturday Vision the sh200,000 was for a medical examination, fingerprints, immunisation and training, which was not covered by Beowulf. On the casualties, she said one got shot when testing his gun and no compensation was paid.

She denied allegations that their passports were being confiscated. The company only deducts money when somebody is sacked, she said.

"What we did when signing the contract is that in case of dismissal, we have to pay for the ticket back. I pay for the ticket and then deduct from their money," she said.

A letter by Donald F. Rector, the director of Beowulf International, gives an insight into the bitter fight over the lucrative job market in Iraq.

Beowulf had been contacted in January 2006 by EOD Technologies, an American company working for the Department of Defence, to provide security guards for Camp Victory in Baghdad, Rector explained in a memo to labour minister Mwesigwa Rukutana.

He said he travelled to Kampala to sign a contract with Askar. "In February, I brought 400 Ugandans to Iraq. The guards began working and quickly impressed the US Army with their professional skills and discipline."

However, problems started when the guards found that their $1,000 monthly salary did not reach their bank accounts. "Beowulf wired the correct funds to Askar but in many cases, the personnel did not receive the correct amounts," the memo says.

Another problem Rector found was that unqualified personnel were sent to Iraq. "A number of the men admitted to having no military or police experience when the contract with Askar required all guards to have that experience."

Some did not know how to hold a gun, according to Rector. "One man even showed the client his 'Rambo' one-armed pose on how he thought his weapon should be handled. This embarrassed Beowulf and hurt Uganda's image."

The problems with pay continued. In addition, Rector wrote, "I learned that some men had been charged for their air ticket to Iraq from Uganda even after Beowulf had paid for the flight."

The US company's ordeal became worse when, behind its back, Askar signed a new contract directly with EODT.

"On September 27, my fears became true. EODT ended our business relationship and advised me that they were dealing directly with Askar. They told me that they were taking over all the guards in Iraq."

The guards tried to resist but were told to accept it or be sent home, Rector said. According to his memo, approximately 15 Ugandans were sent home for still keeping contact with Beowulf.

"All the guards have been told that if they speak to Beowulf, they will immediately be fired and sent home."

A total of 12 Ugandan companies have been licensed to recruit staff for Iraq. Of those, only three have actually provided personnel. Askar has sent about 1,700 guards so far, Dresak International 3,000 while Connect Financial Services has signed a contract to provide 2,500 guards to protect foreign missions in Baghdad, of whom 380 have already left.

But unlicensed companies have also been sending personnel to Iraq. African Skies is one of them. According to Migral Opportunities, a rival company, African Skies has sent dog handlers and also got a contract for static guards.

"Some of the companies African Skies has already supplied Ugandan labour to include Armor Group, Babylon Gates and Global Securities," the company wrote in a letter to the minister, dated June 6, 2007.

Some of the 'undeclared' personnel are reportedly transported by bus through the eastern border of Busia or Malaba to Nairobi, from where they are flown to Iraq. When asked for clarification by Beowulf, labour minister Rukutana confirmed that the company was not among those licensed.

"I wish to inform you that African Skies is not among the licensed external employment agencies in Uganda and would like to advise that you deal with them at your own risk," Rukutana wrote.

Lured by pay of as much as $2,000 (about sh3m) per month, many Ugandans have been jamming the gates of the security firms to sign in for deployment in Iraq.

Some have lifted themselves from the shackles of poverty after working in Iraq for less than a year.

For others, however, the risky job of guarding Americans in Iraq has proven to be an unrewarding nightmare.

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