SALAYSAY: Foreign workers for the US are casualties twice over (3rd Part)

Incident rates differ

KBR Inc. is the largest employer of contract workers in Iraq, with about 16,000, most of them U.S. citizens, according to a July 2007 Pentagon census.

The Houston engineering and construction firm reported more than 700 serious injuries or deaths in the first six months of 2007 — almost five incidents for every 100 workers.

Prime Projects International of Dubai was the largest employer of foreigners in Iraq, with about 10,000 civilian workers.

The company reported 43 serious injuries or deaths in the first six months of 2007 — less than one per 100 workers.

The same held for other subcontractors with large foreign workforces, such as Saudi-based Gulf Catering Co. and Tamimi Global Co. and Turkish firm Kulak. None of the companies responded to requests for comment.

“When you’re dealing with these subcontractors, a lot of them would just as soon wash their hands and walk away,” said an official with Vetted International Ltd., a North Carolina firm that researches claims for insurance companies. He did not want to be named for security reasons relating to his work in war zones. “A lot of claims go unreported and these people just don’t get care.”

Many of the Middle East firms providing services to the U.S. military in Iraq are subcontractors for KBR. In a statement, KBR said its “top priority is the safety and security of all employees and those the company serves…. We expect those we do business with to uphold that same commitment.”

When an employer neglects to report an injury or death, it is difficult for foreign workers or their survivors — assuming they even know about the war-zone insurance — to persuade U.S.-based insurance companies and federal bureaucrats that they are entitled to benefits.

Gorgonia Torres found that out after losing her husband in Iraq.

Rey Torres had gone to Baghdad in December 2003. Stationed at Camp Victory, a U.S. military complex on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, he was a jack-of-all-trades, working as a driver, janitor and security guard, according to his wife.

On April 17, 2005, Gorgonia got a call from one of Rey’s co-workers, who told her he had been killed traveling through an insurgent-infested neighborhood of Baghdad.

Eleven days later, her husband’s remains were delivered to her in a coffin sealed with red wax. Gorgonia took a deep breath when she remembered looking inside.

“Every part of my body was in pain. I felt like I had just run a long distance. I couldn’t even feel my legs. Everything hurt,” said Gorgonia, 38, a slight woman with high cheekbones and short black hair.

The Philippine government paid Gorgonia about $5,000, a death benefit for citizens working abroad. Her husband’s employer, Qatar International Trading Co., made a one-time payment of $16,000, representing a year of his salary.

That was a fraction of what she was due. Under the Defense Base Act, a widow is entitled to as much as half her spouse’s salary for the rest of her life — more if the deceased left children behind. For foreigners, the law allows insurers to calculate a lump sum based on an estimate of the widow’s remaining life span, and pay half that amount.. (Survivors of U.S. citizens receive the full lump sum or lifetime monthly payments.)

Under the formula, Gorgonia and her children were eligible for up to $300,000. But until a reporter visited her in 2007 after learning of her case from a Philippine government Web site, Gorgonia had never heard of the insurance.

Qatar International never told her about it, Gorgonia said. Nor is there any record that the firm reported Rey Torres’ death to the U.S. government.

When she finally applied for compensation, the Labor Department sent her a notice in English that she could not read. It said that AIG, Qatar International’s insurance carrier, was disputing her claim and wanted more time to investigate the death and verify her husband’s employment.

(More next week)