KARBALA, Iraq – At times, as he describes how he sleeps on the floor of the store where he works or misses the family he left in Nepal to find a job, Mohan Rai punctuates his gloomy tale with a laugh.
He tries to make light of the misery he shares with the thousands of foreign laborers who have spent their life savings to get to Iraq to do the country's dirty work.
The brutal punchline: Rai and his colleagues face deportation with little, if any, profit to show for years of hardship.
The problem of illegal migrant workers is not unique to Iraq, says the labor minister, Nasser al-Rubaie. Even the United States, he says, grapples with severe difficulties over illegal immigration. But in Iraq, where the specter of violence still hangs over even its holiest cities, there is scant hope for immigrants seeking a better life in a new homeland.
With 900,000 Iraqis unemployed, the government has little sympathy for foreigners who have flocked here to take menial jobs as housekeepers or restaurant workers. And, to get here, authorities say immigrants are routinely fleeced by employment agencies who charge thousands of dollars for flights and temporary visas for workers who wind up earning only a few hundred dollars each month.
"When I am in Nepal, they tell me I will be paid $600 a week," Rai, 33, said last month at the clothing store in Karbala, 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, where he works and lives. "When I get here, $300 a month. Hahahaha! It's a problem."
Rai, whose broken English is better than his Arabic, paid $5,000 to a Nepalese employment agency in 2009 to find him a job. A farmer, he scraped together the money for months by selling crops, borrowing from friends and banks, and in part by selling off a plot of his family's land.
He had no idea where Iraq was when the agency sent him here on a two-year contract. He did not know the country was awash with violence and years of war.
When he and fellow Nepalese workers learned they would be sent to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, they were told, "'No, no, it is not dangerous,'" said Durga Rai, also 33, a fellow clansman who works at the same shop. It's very dangerous in the city where Shiite pilgrims are targeted by Sunni insurgents hoping to stir up sectarian violence.
At best, the two men will have made $2,200 profit each for two years' work as cleaners, stockboys and salesmen in the store. They sleep on the floor between racks of polo shirts. And that's if they're lucky. Iraq's parliament is considering new laws to curb foreign workers by forcing employers to hire at least as many Iraqis. Otherwise new incoming foreigners would be barred from the country.
Gaining employment visas for foreigners is arduous, a process that usually is solved with bribes. The visas themselves are not very expensive — it costs about $80 for initial tourist stamps. Residency visas that allow long-term employment only cost up to about $100.
Facing high unemployment and 23 percent of its people living in poverty, Baghdad is clamping down on foreign workers.
That has created a black-market in foreign workers who are sold like a commodity as cheap labor to businesses and government contractors.
Al-Rubaie, the labor minister, said wealthy Iraqis "buy" foreign workers from employment agencies to serve as housekeepers — a process he likened to slave labor. Employers usually pay agencies about $500 for the workers and agree to feed and shelter them.
Al-Rubaie said it's doubtful that many, if any, have the necessary permits to work.
"There are thousands of people here like that," al-Rubaie said in an interview. "And we must ensure that they have eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours sleep to preserve their human rights."
He estimated there are a minimum of 6,000 illegal foreign workers in Iraq.
Under the new laws, businesses will not be allowed to bid on government projects unless they can prove their work force is 50 percent Iraqi, al-Rubaie said. Contractors already in Iraq will be given six months to meet the 50 percent requirement, and may be fined thousands of dollars each day until the threshold is met.
That could result in mass layoffs for foreign workers already in the country. They will be given six months to obtain government work permits before facing deportation.
"Those who enter legally will be protected by law," al-Rubaie said. "The existence of foreign workers who are here illegally means they will be exploited and contractors will deny them their human rights. He should not be humiliated. He will not be denied sleep. We will force the contractors and the Iraqi employers to give him his rights."
In Najaf, another holy destination for Shiite pilgrims, the owner of a local employment agency who supplied foreign workers for hotels and restaurants said he shut down in 2009 to avoid being caught up in what was then becoming a shady business. He said he tried to ensure that all workers he recruited had the proper work permits.
Still, "we stopped this business two years ago because we do not want to do anything that is illegal," said Ghazi al-Ghazali. "We used to hire foreign labor from Pakistan and Bangladesh because they are cheaper and they are ready to accept low-skilled jobs that Iraqis do not want to work in, such as cleaning."
At the hotel Qasr al-Dur in Najaf, housekeeping staff manager Mohammed Sharuz, a Bangladeshi, said he'll return home if he's forced to leave before his two-year contract is up next year. But "if Iraq's government decides that the foreign workers cannot stay, things will be tough, for the hotels as well," Sharuz said. "Maintenance is very hard."
"We need to be available 24 hours for the guests, and Iraqi workers would not want to do that," said Sharuz, 43, who sends his salary to his wife and four children back home. "If they let me stay, I will work very hard. I get my salary and I send it to my country. I make $500 a month and even that is not enough for five people back home. There are days I do not eat here."
He oversees 34 housekeepers at the hotel a few blocks away from the famed Imam Ali shrine: 18 Bangladeshis, 15 Pakistanis, and one Nepalese.
Most foreign workers in Iraq earn between $200 and $400 monthly in a country where al-Rubaie said the minimum wage is $600.
And some don't get paid at all. In May, ten Sri Lankan workers tried to hang themselves in Iraq's southern Maysan province because they had not been paid for two years, said local councilman Salman al-Shara. The Sri Lankans were brought to Iraq for jobs with a private construction firm, but were left to fend for themselves when the building project ran out of money and stopped work.
The Sri Lankans gave up months of begging for food and climbed one of the half-finished buildings, "carrying ropes to hang themselves in protest of not being paid," al-Shara said. Local officials intervened, and the Maysan governor gave each worker $210 and promised to solve the problem.
Rai, the Nepalese worker in Karbala, says he usually works 12 hours each day, six days each week. The stress and his meager living conditions have sent him to the local hospital twice in the last 14 months with severe headaches. Requests for a salary raise have been denied.
His boss, the owner of the clothing store that is staffed by at least three other Nepalese men, refused to be interviewed for this article.
If he's not deported by then, Rai will leave Iraq in next spring, when his two-year contract ends. It has not been a happy life in Iraq: "Most of the time it is a bad feeling," he said.
But given the chance, he'd stay for years longer. Even the small amount of money he earns has been worth what he's paid in misery.
"To stay is not possible, I think," he said. "Any country, I'll go. No problem. Nepal, Iraq — I'll go anywhere there is money."