In the heat and dust of northern Iraq, it’s a pleasant memory for 25-year-old Amy: the branch manager of a Chinese décor firm based in Sulaymaniyah recalls pleasant evenings at dinner with her friends in her hometown, Guangzhou in China.
Amy’s habits haven’t changed altogether since she moved to Iraq; she still eats her rice meals with chopsticks and she still likes to wear the shorter skirts and suits she always wore at home, and go out at night to meet friends. However some of those habits have caused her problems in Sulaymaniyah – even though the city is known as one of the most liberal in Iraq.
“I really like to meet new people and to get around the city after working hours,” Amy says. “But I’ve had to stop that here. In fact, I’ve started to avoid going to crowded places in Sulaymaniyah because of the hostile attitude towards foreigners here. It scares me,” complains the young Chinese woman, who has been harassed by locals because of her style of dress. In Iraqi Kurdistan some also consider it unacceptable for women to go out unaccompanied in some areas of town or at some times of the day.
Amy is just one of a virtual flood of foreign workers entering Iraqi Kurdistan; the semi-autonomous region, with its own legal system and government, is often referred to as the “other Iraq” because it’s generally safer and things work more efficiently here than in the rest of the country. This has drawn not only Iraqis from elsewhere but a host of foreign businesses, who set up their headquarters in one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two major cities, Sulaymaniyah or Erbil.
According to the latest figures the number of foreign workers in the Sulaymaniyah province is sitting at around 5,000 – that is the number who are officially registered at the local Department of labour. However many observers believe this number is far too low because of the many more foreign workers who are not officially registered in Sulaymaniyah.
The head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq based in Erbil provided numbers from the local Ministry of Finance that seemed to back that theory. Sokol Kondi said that only around 4,000 international firms officially pay taxes to the Iraqi Kurdish government. However there are more than 16,000 international businesses operating in the region that do not pay local taxes – which indicates that these companies must also be bringing in foreign workers but that the workers do not need to be registered. The companies have apparently claimed that it’s hardly their fault; there’s no coordination between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Labour.
Additionally, Kondi, whose office is tasked with advising and assisting the Iraqi government, added, “most of the foreign workers employed in hotels and restaurants don’t even have residency permits because their employers have good contacts inside the local government.” This means their workplaces won’t be checked for illegal migrants.
Because of all of the above, there are really no official figures on the number of foreign workers in the area. Nor are there numbers on the foreign workers who came here and stayed illegally, after their residence permits expired. This has resulted in the exploitation of foreigners who then work longer hours for very low wages.
In July 2012, a group comprised of lawyers, activists and journalists launched a campaign called “Silent Workers”.
“The campaign was launched because of the growing number of foreign workers in the region,” local lawyer Hilal Ibrahim explained at a September conference on the subject. “Workers here don’t have any legal protection because they are not covered by any legally binding documents that could protect them against exploitation.”
Asking around, NIQASH was able to speak to four Nepalese men, aged between 24 and 28, who readily complained about their working conditions in Sulaymaniyah. “We have a lot of problems,” one of the group, which didn’t want to be named or photographed for fear of retaliation from their employers. “The biggest one is getting our residence permits renewed when they expire. Our bosses are reluctant to do this.”
And an Indian national, Abrar Ahmad, in his 30s, also had complaints. He works for a Kurdish company but his employer refused to give him leave to go home when his mother became very ill. “She needs someone there for her,” Ahmad explained.
As evidenced by Amy’s story though, the problems for foreign workers in Iraqi Kurdistan are also cultural. Sulaymaniyah social worker Rahman Ali told NIQASH that it was true that locals tended to think of foreigners differently because of the different way they looked, acted or spoke.
But, he said, foreign workers were also appreciated in Sulaymaniyah. “People here respect foreign workers most when they don’t disrespect the local culture,” Ali explained. “And they certainly make a big impact on local young people, who have done things like learn English so they can communicate with the foreigners.”
“My city is changing continuously,” agrees Chayma, a 21 year old woman who lives in Sulaymaniyah. “And having foreigners here has become totally normal. I think it’s good for the locals. The foreigners have good ideas and different cultures and they also have an efficient work ethic.”
“And we do notice that the foreigners are not all the same,” she adds. The Japanese, the Europeans and the Americans are well educated and often that distinguishes them from some of the other foreigners. However,” she added. “I believe that the people of this city respect all foreigners regardless of where they come from. Having said that, I’ve noticed that some of the foreigners don’t respect our traditions – for instance, they will wear clothes that don’t show any respect for our beliefs.”
Bangladeshi Mohammed Farouq, who is in his 20s, mostly agrees with Chayma. He works for a local TV station in Sulaymaniyah and he says he’s really happy here. “People here are kind hearted,” he says. “I have made new friends here and have been flatting with some of them for some time now.”
Farouq hasn’t found the cultural transition difficult. “I go to the mosque with my new friends ever week and I totally respect the traditions of the people here,” he told NIQASH.
The same kind of sentiment is expressed by Abdul Rahim, a Turkish labourer in his mid-30s. “There are not that many cultural differences between the Iraqi people and the Turkish people, especially in Kurdistan,” says Rahim, who is one of around 650 mostly Turkish workers employed by a Turkish contractor building a residential complex in Sulaymaniyah. “We have brotherly relations and we share the same religion, Islam,” Rahim concluded.
Unfortunately that is of little comfort to people like Amy, whose culture and religious beliefs may be very different in comparison. “I feel like I’m trapped between my home and my office,” she laments. “I don’t want to go out at night on my own because I’m afraid I might get into trouble. I really feel so lonely,” she concludes sadly.