BAGHDAD One of the legions of foreign laborers in Iraq, Bangladeshi mechanic Rajauol Abdul Haq managed to provide for his three children back home despite his meager pay and long, hard hours at a Baghdad auto repair shop.
Now his life as a migrant worker in Iraq could come to an abrupt end after the government's decision to start deporting foreign workers to create more job opportunities for Iraqis as their country rebuilds after years of war.
Haq, 34, came to Iraq a year ago after mortgaging his house to pay a $5,000 fee to an employment agency to bring him to Baghdad, where he earns $300 a month and shares a room with three other Bangladeshis.
"I am living a nightmare. At any moment the Iraqi authorities could arrest me and deport me. I haven't raised the cash for the mortgage. If I return now, I will lose my house," Haq said at a garage where he was repairing a car.
Thousands of foreign workers came to Iraq after the 2003 invasion as employees for foreign companies contracted by U.S. forces, mostly working inside U.S. military bases. After 2007, private Iraqi employment agencies imported thousands more.
But with the official unemployment rate at 15 percent and another 28 percent in part-time jobs, the government plans to deport illegal foreigners. Many of the private agencies stopped work after Iraq halted visas for foreign workers on January 1.
With Iraq trying to pull back from years of war, snagging a scarce job is increasingly a priority for many Iraqis.
"We have started developing a mechanism to deport foreign laborers who entered Iraq illegally," Aziz Ibrahim, general director of the labor office at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, told Reuters in an interview.
THOUSANDS OF ILLEGALS
No one knows how many illegal workers entered Iraq or stayed after working for foreign firms that left when their contracts expired, but Ibrahim estimates the number in the thousands.
The government is only issuing work permits to workers at foreign firms that hire at least 50 percent Iraqis for their work force, officials said.
Firms importing labor must pay $5,000 for each worker to a fund to help jobless Iraqis with loans and benefits.
Thousands of foreigners, mainly from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and some African nations, work as cleaners and laborers in restaurants, shops, hospitals and hotels.
Fairouz Jubidali, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi who came to Iraq in 2009 through a Bangladeshi job agency, said he paid $4,500 to obtain work for three years. He earns $300 a month cleaning, stocking and selling at a Baghdad food store.
He says he was duped.
"I was deceived by the agency. They did not tell me that I would go to Iraq," he said. "I thought I was going to Gulf states. When my contract expires I will leave Iraq because the situation is not safe."
Foreign workers complain they are subjected to humiliating conditions and employers sometimes withhold or delay pay. They have no recourse because they are working illegally.
Recently, 30 Sri Lankans working for a Lebanese firm building housing in Maysan province went on a hunger strike, and some threatened to hang themselves if they were not paid for two years' work.
Anger over power outages, food ration shortages, corruption and government ineffectiveness is heating up the political climate in Iraq as it tries to shake off the legacy of years of violence, sanctions and economic decline.
Despite its huge untapped oil and gas reserves and steadily rising oil output and revenue, 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the planning ministry said.
Ibrahim Jameel, the shop owner who employs Fairouz Jubidali, said deporting foreign workers will not solve joblessness.
"It is impossible to find Iraqis who accept this kind of work with such pay ... most unemployed Iraqis are university graduates," he said.
Economic analysts played down the possible impact of the government's measures for unemployed Iraqis. Foreign workers are less costly than their Iraqi counterparts.
"It's not a major change or solution to unemployment because they are not competing for Iraqi jobs," said Salam Smeism, an economist and Iraqi bourse board member.
But central government officials defend their measures against foreigners as necessary to ease chronic unemployment.
"Providing jobs for Iraqi unemployed is our duty. All these measures are to solve the unemployment crisis," Ibrahim said.
(Additional reporting Shamal Aqrawi; Editing by Jim Loney and Elizabeth Fullerton)