With the fall of Saddam Hussein and disbanding of the army by Iraq's new US administrators, Abu Kamal lost his job as a soldier in the republican guard. He had been a sentry at Saddam's palace in Baghdad and, while his salary was far from huge, he earned enough to look after his family. There was little work to be had in the year that followed the 2003 invasion but eventually he found a job in a small supermarket in the east of Iraq's capital city. For the next six years he packed bags and stacked shelves, earning just under US$300 (Dh1,100) a month. It was barely enough to live on, but the father of four considered himself lucky to have work.
That all came to a sudden halt earlier this year when Abu Kamal, 36, and three other Iraqis were sacked and replaced with immigrant labourers from South Asia. Unemployed once again, the former soldier is angry and vowed that he and his colleagues would take revenge unless they were given alternative jobs. "We have large families and need to work if we want to feed them," he said. "Do not expect us to stand idly by and watch our families die because of these Asian workers.
"They took our work and if the situation continues as it is now without a solution from the company or the Iraqi government, we will threaten the lives of these Asians and force them to leave the country." Abu Kamal spoke on condition that his full name not be used. While there are no official figures for how many immigrant workers are currently in Iraq, anecdotal evidence suggests their numbers have been rising. There is growing resentment among working class Iraqis who, like Abu Kamal, say they are missing out on desperately needed jobs in a country already afflicted by vast unemployment.
Although some estimates say 10 million Iraqis are without work, demand for low-cost labour is high and, even with a continued insurgency and political instability, South Asian labourers - a large number from Bangladesh - apparently view Iraq as a viable place to look for work. Critically, these immigrant workers are prepared to accept lower salaries than locals and are also more likely to do tasks that Iraqis consider demeaning, such as cleaning toilets.
"It's a fairly recent phenomenon to have these immigrant workers here," said Mohammad al Raundozi, an independent economic analyst based in Baghdad. "Iraqi businessmen here like them because they can pay $100 or $200 a month and never have to give them a pay rise. They [immigrant workers] accept almost any salary." But he warned that increasing reliance on foreign workers could have social ramifications.
"If Iraqis do feel economically threatened, it is a possibility that there will be a reaction. It may be that more people are pushed back into finding work in militias or gangs in order to collect money." The ministry of labour insists no permits have been given to agencies importing staff because Iraqis need the jobs they take. This means immigrant labourers are technically in the country illegally and have no protection from the state, making them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.
Ihsan al Dhani, who runs a Baghdad-based agency bringing in Asian workers, said he had received no complaints about his business. "We send Asian staff to many different provinces and we are expecting to bring another 5,000 of them in over the coming months," he said. "If the security situation improves, we will bring more. "Employers like them because the salaries are low and they work hard." Immigrant workers typically arrive in Iraq on a tourist visa and then take work, staying on in the country without any legal residency status, sometimes remaining permanently indoors out of fear that they will be arrested and deported if they go out in the street. However, with no formal system for work permits, they do not require the expensive and time consuming paperwork that is needed for jobs elsewhere in the Middle East, making Iraq a relatively attractive place to come.
Mr al Dhani insisted there had been no effort by the government to halt his labour trade firm. "The biggest problem we had was convincing the workers it was safe enough in many parts of the country for them to come here." The southern province of Kerbala has been largely free of violence for some time and is a major destination for immigrant workers. Hussein al Ahmed, a hotel owner from the city, said he preferred Asian staff. "An Iraqi wants at least $50 a week, but someone from Bangladesh will take less than that," he said. "Asian workers are much more obedient and they will do the dirty work that Iraqi Muslims will not do because they have too much pride."
Another businessman, Jamal al Din al Quraishi, a restaurant owner from Basra, said he had hired an all-Asian staff because they worked harder than Iraqis. "They are serious in their work, they work extremely long hours and they sleep in the restaurant," he explained. "That means I don't have to pay them extra living expenses." Abu Kamal, the now unemployed supermarket worker, was adamant he had worked hard for his pay.
"I used to do 12 hours a day and would take two days off a week, or perhaps sometimes three," he said. "It wasn't because we didn't work hard enough, we were replaced by Asian workers because they are cheaper. It was a way to save money." Without a job Abu Kamal said he had been forced to send his three sons out to sell cigarettes on the street. "This is what the situation has come to," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org