Family anger at US firm over migrant worker’s death on British island
Defence contractor on Diego Garcia accused of failing to get proper medical help
Katie McQue & Mark Townsend
A major US defence contractor has failed to repatriate the body of a migrant worker who died under unexplained circumstances on the British-owned island of Diego Garcia more than a month ago, the Observer has learned. Saddam Ali died after a short illness on 18 October, on the secretive joint UK-US military base on the remote British overseas territory in the Indian Ocean. His family allege that KBR – Ali’s employer – failed to get the 33-year-old Indian sufficient medical assistance, keeping him on the base, which does not have a hospital-grade facility. More than 1,000 migrant workers are contracted to work for KBR – a key Pentagon contractor that helped build Guantánamo Bay in Cuba – on the military base, which the UK has leased to the US since the 1960s. Strategically located, the atoll of Diego Garcia is crucial for US interests, lying within range of east Africa, the Middle East and Asia. However, the treatment of migrant workers on its vast military base has becoming a source of increasing concern. “It was KBR’s responsibility to evacuate Saddam for better treatment. They should have taken prompt action to evacuate him,” said Dr Junaidul Hasan, his cousin. “They are not providing any information about why they did not.” In a statement to the Observer, KBR said: “Saddam reported ill to us Monday, 16 October and we transferred him to the naval doctors and called a medevac [medical evacuation] for him that same day.” However, Hasan and three KBR workers claim Ali’s body remains on Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Islands archipelago. “They informed us they would arrange [a medevac] but it was never arranged,” said Hasan. Ali, who had no underlying health conditions, became sick with a fever and died of a heart attack, KBR told the family. They have not been provided with any further details about what caused his death. Last night the defence contractor said Ali “passed before it [the medevac] could arrive.” Questions over the potential mishandling of Ali’s medical care comes amid allegations that KBR is “mistreating” its migrant workforce on the base. Ordered by a senior Royal Navy officer, the inquiry was launched after UK officials suspected KBR of recruiting undocumented workers for the military base. Last November, KBR flew three Filipino men, aged 36, 40 and 49, to the tiny British territory from Dubai, where they were believed to be working illegally on tourist visas, according to two KBR employees. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said: “The UK government and the British Indian Ocean Territory [BIOT] administration take any allegations of forced labour or human trafficking extremely seriously.” The FCDO spokesperson said its investigation concluded the men entered Diego Garcia legally but requested the Observer to withhold the names of the UK officers involved in the investigation. The three Filipinos are still working on the base, it is understood. KBR, a former subsidiary of controversial oil services giant Halliburton, which was run for five years by Dick Cheney before he became US vicepresident, refuted allegations that it recruited undocumented workers and denied the FCDO investigation took place. “In late 2022, three employees who were properly documented arrived on the island without having taken their paperwork with them,” said the spokesperson. “The BIOT asked us to look into this, specifically understanding at the time that the three employees may have simply forgotten their paperwork.” However, Dr Maruja Asis, director of the Scalabrini Migration Center, in Manila, Philippines, said: “For these workers being hired in Dubai and then moving on to Diego Garcia, it is very possible that they may be rendered very vulnerable. The protections that the Philippine government can extend to them can be very limited.” KBR, also known as Kellogg Brown & Root, is the main contractor on the military base, located in the Chagos Islands. The Chagos Islanders were forcefully removed to make way for the Diego Garcia base and have spent the past five decades in exile in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK. KBR has held the military base’s main operating support services contract since 2017, providing services including facilities management and IT. The Observer has interviewed 14 current and former KBR employees on Diego Garcia and reviewed documents such as payslips, work contracts, photographs, KBR presentation slides and communications. All the interviewees requested anonymity. They allege a culture of fear on the base, with managers telling staff there is a zero-tolerance policy for workers who speak out. “KBR is always making us scared about this, and we need work to provide for our families,” said Maggie. “They always say they can terminate our jobs.” KBR recruited the workers after experiencing short staffing issues when the Philippines government blocked Filipinos from travelling to Diego Garcia to work for KBR unless they could show they would be earning more than the US minimum wage. To remedy the staffing issues, the British government recently approved hiring limited numbers of Indian and Kenyan workers. However, three Indian workers claim they have been misled over the salaries they would be paid, alleging they were hired in mid2022 on an $800 a month package, which was then cut to around $500 a month when their annual contracts were renewed this year. “KBR pays its employees on Diego Garcia lawful compensation and provides good and safe working conditions. Our Filipino employees choose to work for us because of this,” a KBR spokesperson said.