ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Ankawa is probably Erbil’s most diverse neighborhood, home to migrant workers from across southern and east Asia. Working long hours, often on low pay, and many of them trapped in rigid contracts, the workers who come to Kurdistan are rarely asked: was it worth it?
“The company lied to me. I was a beautician in Bhutan. The company said they would give me work as a beautician in Erbil. But instead they made me a maid,” said Pina Choden, now waitressing at an Indian restaurant in Ankawa.
Pina came to Erbil five months ago with the US-based recruitment agency Manpower. She told Rudaw English she felt misled by the company’s recruiters in Bhutan, who locked her into a strict contract.
“I didn’t like being a maid. I did it for two months then bought my freedom. I paid $4,000 to get out of my contract,” she said.
Migrants who buy their way out of such contracts often find themselves indebted to others in their community to pay off severance fees. What once looked like a gleaming opportunity to earn money and save for the future can quickly become a kind of modern day bondage.
“Now I work here for 12 hours a day and I make just $500,” said Pina. “Two times per month I get half a day break.”
“I am not happy here,” she says, with a slightly resigned smile. “I will maybe stay here another three or four years if I can make more money. Otherwise I’ll leave after a year.”
Spurning recruitment agencies, Rowel instead travelled to Erbil from the Philippines independently.
Out shopping at one of Ankawa’s many Asian supermarkets, he told Rudaw English he is glad he came.
“I have been here two years. I came by myself and got work in a coffee shop. The money I make I send home to my son,” he said.
“I think it’s better here than the Philippines. The salary is higher, the hours are better. There’s a good community here. Too many Filipinos, maybe! I like the Kurds. They’re good people.”
Rowel left the Philippines when his son was just one year old. Despite being so far from his loved ones, he believes the sacrifice was worth it.
“I hope to stay for ten years to make enough money for my son to have a good life,” he said.
“I have a good job. I work a seven hour day and I live above my workplace, so I don’t need to travel.”
Vrakash is an electrician from Nepal. He and his workmates live together in accommodation paid for by Manpower. A group of them are enjoying a day off the construction site, stopping at a local Nepalese restaurant for a hearty lunch.
Vrakash, an electrician from Nepal. Photo: Rob Edwards / Rudaw
“We work 10 hours per day and get one day off per week,” Vrakash explained. “We will only stay here a short time before the company sends us somewhere else. Before this we were in Turkey. We have two more months here then we go somewhere else.”
Although the work is consistent, and they clearly enjoy the camaraderie of living and working together, they are also concerned by the behavior of Manpower.
“We have been here two months but have not yet had any money,” Vrakash said, shrugging. “The company is withholding it.”
Agencies like Manpower are called upon when a large workforce is required for big construction projects. This rent-a-mob system may be economical, but often comes at the expense of workers’ independence – defining where they live, where they work, and occasionally controlling their finances.
Are they happy with their lot?
“Not good, not bad. Just ok,” was Vrakash’s measured reply.
Gangarajam Bodas previously worked for Manpower. He was an English translator, helping the agency recruit Indian workers to staff the factories and construction sites of the Kurdistan Region.
Gangarajam Bodas, business owner from India. Photo: Rob Edwards / Rudaw
Leaving Hyderabad in southern India, where he worked in agriculture, Gangarajam came to Erbil in 2011. Four months ago, he and others in the community opened a business importing and selling Asian foods and spices. He hopes to stay for 10-20 years.
“We love it here because of the freedom,” he told Rudaw English. “It’s not like other Arab countries. They are not like this place. We feel safe here, even when ISIS happened. I am Hindu. We have religious freedom here.”
Although his good fortune has allowed him to become a successful local businessman, Gangarajam is keenly aware of the challenges facing migrants who come to the city.
“We noticed a difference when the economy went down here, yes. Less work,” he said.
“The biggest problem is no insurance. In other countries companies will give insurance. There is none here.”
Trade unions and workers’ syndicates are uncommon in this part of Kurdistan, and membership among migrant workers is particularly rare. Without such support networks in place to help those who fall ill or who are made redundant, migrant communities will pull together to lend a hand.
“If someone [without insurance] needs money, we go around the community to collect money for them,” Gangarajam explained.
Rudaw asked Gangarajam what the government should do to improve circumstances for migrants.
“An eight hour day is needed,” the businessman insisted.
“But number one is insurance. Then work needs rules and regulations, and for these to be enforced.”
ManpowerGroup’s sustainability plan states: “We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to have meaningful work rewarded in a fair manner.”
Rudaw English has approached ManpowerGroup for comment.