Taxing Iraqi interpreters raises identity crisis
By JAMES WARDEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 22, 2009
BAGHDAD — Iraqi interpreters worry that pay changes resulting from the new security agreement could give hostile elements in the Iraqi government access to their personal information — despite their employer’s assertions that it will not turn over any details that would put them at risk.
Global Linguist Solutions, the main interpreter contractor in Iraq, notified its Iraqi employees this month that it will begin deducting 15 percent of their pay for Iraqi income tax plus 5 percent of their pay for Iraqi social security.
Interpreters who have closely guarded their identities for fear of reprisals worry that the Iraqi government will need their personal information to credit them with paying their taxes and allow them to claim retirement benefits later.
Meanwhile, the interpreters are wondering why they are paying taxes — when even most government workers don’t.
“Khalid,” a Baghdad interpreter whose real name is being withheld for security reasons, said he feels that his employer, by asking for his personal information, “will deliver us to the government. Most of these [insurgent groups] are controlled by the government.”
More than 300 interpreters working with American units have been killed since 2003, including some who were clearly targeted because of their jobs.
Douglas Ebner — a spokesman for DynCorp, the majority owner of GLS — said the translation company will not turn over personal information. It is still working with the Iraqi government on how to do this without putting its employees at risk.
"The bottom line is at no point will we be providing this information," he said.
Iraq’s lack of experience with income tax exacerbates the worries. The country had no income tax until American flat tax proponents instituted a 15 percent across-the-board tax in 2003 through a Coalition Provisional Authority order.
The order was rolled into Iraqi law with most other CPA orders, but the country largely ignored the income tax until recently. Iraq runs on a cash economy, and collecting income tax is impractical in most cases.
Even most government workers don’t pay anything. For example, a deputy zone director with the public works department in Baghdad’s Amariyah district makes about 600,000 dinars a month, or about $520. He paid no taxes and contributed just 1,500 dinars, or about $1.25, to his retirement. By contrast, "Imad," a Baghdad interpreter, will have $220 taken out of his $1,100 paycheck.
"My neighbors would find it just unbelievable that the government wants to just cut off our pay," Khalid said. "They should get taxes to give us services. But they cannot provide us security, they cannot provide us power, they cannot provide us anything."
Yet, the security agreement requires American contractors to abide by Iraqi laws, and that includes paying taxes. Even if the rest of the country ignores the tax, GLS must still cooperate, Ebner said.
"Compliance with local law is not up for debate or an option," he said.
Multi-National Force-Iraq sent Stars and Stripes a prepared statement in response to questions about the military’s involvement in the issue.
"The interpreters, like all contractors, are a vital part of operations in Iraq and our continued effort to assist the Government of Iraq in the security of its nation and continued firmament of its sovereignty," the statement read. "U.S. Government contractors are encouraged to work with the Government of Iraq to identify host nation legal requirements associated with conducting business operations in Iraq."
GLS has a number of possible options for giving the Iraqi government what it requires and allowing the interpreters to collect social security while protecting their identities, Ebner said. Ebner would not say what those options were.
"We’re fully confident that we’re going to meet our legal requirements while fully protecting personal information," he said.
The company will not require its Iraqi interpreters to fill out or sign the Iraqi withholding forms this month, according to a GLS list of frequently asked questions that explained the pay changes to interpreters. An explanatory e-mail said the withholdings will be deposited into an escrow account until the company has received guidance from the Iraqi government on how to transfer the money.
Khalid pledged to quit if he is required to turn his personal information over to the government, but the economics of the situation may sway the interpreters as much as the risk of hostile elements in the Iraqi government. The 20 percent pay cut makes the interpreters’ salaries much more comparable to the pay for jobs where they don’t have to conceal their identities for fear of being assassinated, Imad said.
"If it is up to me, I will find a regular job for the government and I will have a retirement," he said. "I’m sure there will be many people who will not be interested in being interpreters."
The security agreement
Article 16: Taxes
2. Members of the United States Forces and of the civilian component shall not be responsible for payment of any tax, duty, or fee that has its value determined and imposed in the territory of Iraq, unless in return for services requested and received.
Article 2: Definition of Terms
4. "Member of the civilian component" means any civilian employed by the United States Department of Defense. This term does not include individuals normally resident in Iraq.