With 900,000 Iraqis unemployed and a minimum of 6,000 illegal foreign workers in Iraq, the government has little sympathy for foreigners who have come here to take menial jobs as housekeepers or restaurant workers. And authorities say immigrants are charged by employment agencies thousands of dollars for flights and temporary visas for workers who earns only a few hundred dollars each month.
Thousands of foreign workers came to Iraq after the 2003 invasion as employees for foreign companies contracted by U.S. force. After 2007, private Iraqi employment agencies imported thousands more.
Reports says rate of unemployment has increased to 15 percent and another 28 percent in part-time jobs, the government plans to deport illegal foreigners.
“When I am in Nepal, they tell me I will be paid $600 a week,” Rai, 33, said last month at the clothing store in Karbala, 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, where he works and lives. “When I get here, $300 a month. Hahahaha! It’s a problem.”
Gaining employment visas for foreigners is a process that usually is accompanied by bribes. The visas themselves are not very expensive _ it costs about $80 for initial tourist stamps. Residency visas that allow long-term employment only cost up to about $100.
Al-Rubaie, the labor minister, said wealthy Iraqis “buy” foreign workers from employment agencies to serve as housekeepers _ a process he likened to slave labor. Employers usually pay agencies about $500 for the workers and agree to feed and shelter them.
“There are thousands of people here like that,” al-Rubaie said in an interview. “And we must ensure that they have eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours sleep to preserve their human rights.”
Under the new laws, businesses will not be allowed to bid on government projects unless they can prove their work force is 50 percent Iraqi, al-Rubaie said. Contractors already in Iraq will be given six months to meet the 50 percent requirement, and may be fined thousands of dollars each day until the threshold is met.
“Those who enter legally will be protected by law,” al-Rubaie said. “The existence of foreign workers who are here illegally means they will be exploited and contractors will deny them their human rights. He should not be humiliated. He will not be denied sleep. We will force the contractors and the Iraqi employers to give him his rights.”
“We need to be available 24 hours for the guests, and Iraqi workers would not want to do that,” said Sharuz, 43, who sends his salary to his wife and four children back home. “If they let me stay, I will work very hard. I get my salary and I send it to my country. I make $500 a month and even that is not enough for five people back home. There are days I do not eat here.”
He oversees 34 housekeepers at the hotel a few blocks away from the famed Imam Ali shrine: 18 Bangladeshis, 15 Pakistanis, and one Nepalese.
Most foreign workers in Iraq earn between $200 and $400 monthly in a country where al-Rubaie said the minimum wage is $600.
And some don’t get paid at all. In May, ten Sri Lankan workers tried to hang themselves in Iraq’s southern Maysan province because they had not been paid for two years, said local councilman Salman al-Shara. The Sri Lankans were brought to Iraq for jobs with a private construction firm, but were left to fend for themselves when the building project ran out of money and stopped work.
The Sri Lankans gave up months of begging for food and climbed one of the half-finished buildings, “carrying ropes to hang themselves in protest of not being paid,” al-Shara said. Local officials intervened, and the Maysan governor gave each worker $210 and promised to solve the problem.
?It is impossible to find Iraqis who accept this kind of work with such pay ? most unemployed Iraqis are university graduates,? he said.
Economic analysts played down the possible impact of the government?s measures for unemployed Iraqis. Foreign workers are less costly than their Iraqi counterparts.
?It?s not a major change or solution to unemployment because they are not competing for Iraqi jobs,? said Salam Smeism, an economist and Iraqi bourse board member.
But central government officials defend their measures against foreigners as necessary to ease chronic unemployment.