They say they could have opted for Dubai, Saudi Arabia or even Europe. But Baghdad is the destination of choice for a rising number of foreign workers, a jarring sight in a city where, not long ago, they were unlikely to keep their freedom or lives long enough to collect a paycheck.
“Sometimes I hear loud booms, but I don’t care,” said Zahandwir Aloui, a 25-year-old waiter with a wife and two children at home in Bangladesh. “I like working here.”
Recently he was clearing dishes at the upscale restaurant where he works, one of scores of better restaurants, homes and hotels where the waiters, cooks, clerks, housekeepers and attendants are increasingly likely to be from India, Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal and Ethiopia.
These are not contract workers recruited by American firms like KBR or Halliburton to work at American military cafeterias or to pull guard duty on the perimeter of American bases, but men and women who have come to work for Iraqi businesses that would otherwise hire Iraqis. And even if the number of foreigners working for Iraqis is still small, it seems one more sign that the capital may be on the cusp of a return to normalcy.
Despite an unemployment rate in Iraq estimated to be as high as 40 percent, the problem here is the same as that at many places: Even though Iraqis are paid more than foreigners, business owners say it is nearly impossible to keep Iraqi staff members in low-level positions for longer than a few weeks.
“There are some jobs Iraqis won’t do — even if they don’t have jobs,” said Basil Radhi, 54, an Iraqi whose family owns a nearby restaurant.
Since the 2003 invasion by United States-led forces, few foreigners have strayed outside the heavily secured Green Zone, with the exception of well-armed American soldiers, because foreigners had been targets of Sunni and Shiite militias, which carried out kidnappings and executions.
Even though Baghdad is safer now than it was in the first few years following the invasion, most of the recently arrived workers say they do not go far from their workplaces.
Mr. Aloui, the waiter, who earns double what he would at home, lives in a room at a hotel next door to the restaurant (where diners are searched for suicide belts before eating). He says he knows almost nothing about Baghdad aside from the dozen or so steps between the restaurant and the hotel. He has been told not to walk the street alone.
And while he works as many as 15 hours a day, six days a week, for his $250 monthly salary, not including a $50 monthly bonus, the restaurant’s Iraqi-born waiters earn more than double that — even when they work far fewer hours.
The arrangement was defended by the restaurant’s owner, Hussein Qaduri, 28, whose previous restaurant was blown up by a suicide car bomb in 2004. Of his 45 employees, 5 are from Bangladesh.
“I pay for their hotel, for their barber, for their medical treatment,” he said about his Bangladeshi waiters. “Everything comes directly from me.”
In the five months since the relative lull in violence allowed him to open his restaurant, Mr. Radhi said he had employed hundreds of Iraqi waiters, dishwashers, cleanup crews and cooks. He said he had had enough of what he called Iraqis’ suspect work ethic and was in the process of looking for more foreign workers.
But on Tuesday, Abdullah al-Lami, a spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of Labor and Social Work, said that while hiring foreign workers might have become commonplace in recent months, it was not lawful.
Employment companies obtain tourist visas for foreign workers, he said, and the visas do not permit the foreigners to hold jobs.
“The employment offices that do this work are illegal,” Mr. Lami said. “The people who employ these workers are trying to take advantage of paying them low wages.”
But Bilal Hadi, co-owner of the Watania Company, one of a handful of employment agencies hiring foreign workers, said that he had, in fact, received the approval of the government and that he was not exploiting workers.
The workers his company recruits to Iraq through its offices in Bangladesh and Dubai are contacted at least every other month to ensure they are being treated well.
“Abuse might happen,” he said, “but it is not my fault.”
Companies seeking foreign workers typically hire “two or three for a taste to see if it works,” before asking for more, he said.
In the month that the company has been open in Baghdad, Mr. Hadi said he had brought in 400 foreign workers, all of them currently employed.
Next, he said, he would like to hire European workers — Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians in particular — who would be in high demand as waitresses and housekeepers. He would hire them out for $350 a month, he said.
Among the city’s more recent arrivals are a group of six bakers who have come from the city of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. They live together in a rooftop concrete bunker accessible by a flimsy 12-foot ladder perched above the bakery. The bathroom is down the ladder.
Despite the crowded conditions, Mohammed Ayub Hussein, 37, who has a wife and two children back home, said he would like to stay for a while.
“I want to be here maybe four or five years to make some money,” he said. When asked what he does aside from his all-night shift at the bakery, he shrugged. “I came here to work.”