The Filipinos thought they were flying to Dubai. One of them told a fellow passenger how excited he was about his new job as a telephone repairman at a hotel in the emirate.
It was only after liftoff from Kuwait, when the captain made an announcement, that they learned their destination was, in fact, Baghdad.
"All you-know-what broke loose on that airplane. People started shouting," said Rory Mayberry, an American passenger on the flight who had been hired to work in the Iraqi capital.
The Filipinos settled down only after a security guard from the company that had hired them waved a submachine gun, according to Mayberry. "They realized they had no other choice but to go to Baghdad," he said.
Mayberry recounted this incident, which he said took place in March 2006, during a congressional hearing in Washington on July 26 that looked into allegations of "waste, fraud and abuse" in the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Held by the House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the hearing yielded startling testimony about victimization of workers from the Philippines and other poor countries.
The allegations riled Philippine officials, particularly because Manila bans the deployment of workers to Iraq. The government is trying to find out what happened to the workers reportedly trafficked to Baghdad, who have not been accounted for.
Though it is not unusual for Filipinos working abroad to be abused, the charge that 51 laborers had been brought to work at an American facility against their will touched a nerve. The Philippines has more than eight million citizens working abroad, or 10 percent of the population, and the remittances they send home - $12 billion last year - are keeping the economy afloat.
"It is distressing to hear that our fellow Filipinos are being deceived into working in Iraq by unscrupulous contracting firms," Senator Mar Roxas of the Philippines said. "Unless we have officially accepted that the days of slavery are back, the government must act."
Roxas called on the foreign affairs and labor departments of the Philippines to investigate.
"This particular issue is so serious because the very lives of our migrant workers - not just their comfort or their living conditions - but their very lives are at the core of what this issue is about," said Claro Cristobal, a spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
Mayberry told the committee he was hired by First Kuwaiti, a firm based in Kuwait that was the project's primary contractor, as an emergency medical technician. He said he stayed at the Baghdad site for five days, went back to the United States afterward and reported the alleged abuses to the U.S. authorities.
"I believe these men were kidnapped," Mayberry said, according to a transcript of the congressional hearing. He said First Kuwaiti had asked him to escort the Filipino workers to the Kuwait airport and make sure they boarded the plane to Baghdad.
Mayberry said he later found out that the workers "were being smuggled into the Green Zone" in Baghdad. "They had no IDs, no passports, nothing."
Mayberry's account was corroborated by John Owens, a foreman at the site, where quarters for embassy security personnel were being built. "I believe I witnessed it," Owens said, referring to human trafficking.
"When flying from Kuwait to Baghdad, I saw a bunch of workers with tickets to Dubai," Owens said. "Mine was the only one that said Baghdad. When I asked the First Kuwaiti manager, he said, 'Shhh, don't say anything. If Kuwaiti customs knows they're going to Iraq, they won't let them on the plane.' "
Owens said the conditions at the site "were deplorable, beyond what even a working man should tolerate." Foreign workers, he said, were packed tight into trailers, equipment was insufficient and basic needs went unmet...
He said many of the workers were verbally and physically abused and intimidated.
Mayberry said safety was a major problem at the site. "There were a lot of injuries out there because of the conditions these people were forced to work in. It was absurd," he said.
According to the Philippine labor secretary, Arturo Brion, First Kuwaiti denied the forced labor allegations to Filipino officials. The House panel's chairman, Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, said during the hearing that the committee had tried but failed to get First Kuwaiti to answer questions.
Attempts to contact First Kuwaiti were unsuccessful Friday. But Wednesday, Adel Jabbour, the company's human resource manager, told ABS-CBN, a Manila television network, that no Filipino in its employ had been forced to work, and that the workers on Mayberry's flight - only 11 of whom, he said, were Filipinos - had known they were going to Baghdad.
Matthew Lussenhop, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Manila, told The Philippine Daily Inquirer that the State Department had found "no evidence" of forced labor at the Baghdad site. He said two U.S. inspectors general had "looked at the embassy compound in Baghdad, interviewed the workers and found no evidence of trafficking."
The Philippines does not have an embassy or a diplomatic contingent in Iraq. Officials say Manila has been relying on Washington to help find the 51 workers.
According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, First Kuwaiti has been on its watch list for three years for "gross violations of laws, rules, and regulations on overseas employment," and was barred from recruiting Filipinos.
incident in 2004 when a Filipino truck driver held hostage was released after the government decided to withdraw its small contingent in Iraq as per the hostage takers' demands. Second, it would further damage America's assessment of progress made in Iraq if its contractors are forced to abduct persons to help build the US Embassy. Clearly, not a good show. The International Herald Tribune has the story: