The laborers said they paid middlemen more than $2,000 to get to Iraq for jobs that they were told would earn them $600 to $800 a month. Some of the men took out loans to cover the fees.
"They promised us the moon and stars," said Davidson Peters, 42, a Sri Lankan. "While we are here, wives have left their husbands and children have been shut out of their schools" because money for the families has dried up.
The men live in three warehouses with long rows of bunk beds crammed tightly together. Reporters who tried to get a better glimpse inside were ushered away by armed guards.
The conditions in which the men have been held appear to violate guidelines the US military handed down in 2006 that urged contractors to deter human trafficking to the war zone by shunning recruiters that charged excessive fees. The guidelines also defined "minimum acceptable" living spaces – 50 square feet per person – and required companies to fulfill the pledges they made to employees in contracts.
A US military spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq referred questions to KBR. The spokesman said that the American military wasn't aware of the warehouses until McClatchy and the Times of London began asking questions about it on Monday.
Some of the men who've been living in the warehouses said that KBR representatives visited the site two weeks ago. They said Najlaa held their passports until the KBR inspection, which Najlaa officials denied. Seizing passports is a violation of the US military's 2006 instructions to contractors.
KBR didn't answer direct questions about the warehouse but issued a two-paragraph statement. "When KBR becomes aware of potential violations of international laws regarding trafficking in persons, we work, within our authority, to remediate the problem and report the matter to proper authorities. KBR then works with authorities to rectify the matter," it said.