Sarah Stillman wrote an excellent article in the New Yorker about the “invisible army” of foreign workers or “third-country nationals” (TCNs) staffing U.S. military bases in war zones. She reports that “armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands.” These TCNs tell horrific tales of abuse and exploitation, but also of resistance. Trafficked humans and modern slavery make the war machine go. Here are some excerpts from the article:
The Invisible Army
For foreign workers on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell.
by Sarah Stillman June 6, 2011
More than seventy thousand “third-country nationals” work for the American military in war zones; many report being held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by subcontractors who operate outside the law.
The article follows two Fijian women who were recruited to work in Dubai. They were tricked and found themselves working for the U.S. military bases in Iraq:
Soon, more than fifty women were lined up outside Meridian’s office to compete for positions that would pay as much as thirty-eight hundred dollars a month—more than ten times Fiji’s annual per-capita income. Ten women were chosen, Vinnie and Lydia among them. Vinnie lifted her arms in the air and sang her favorite gospel song: “We’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make it. With Jesus on our side, things will work out fine.” Lydia raced home to tell her husband and explain things to her five-year-old son. “Mommy’s going to be O.K.,” she recalls telling him. “Dubai, it’s a rich country. Only good things can happen.”
On the morning of October 10, 2007, the beauticians boarded their flight to the Emirates. They carried duffelbags full of cosmetics, family photographs, Bibles, floral sarongs, and chambas, traditional silky Fijian tops worn with patterned skirts. More than half of the women left husbands and children behind. In the rush to depart, none of them examined the fine print on their travel documents: their visas to the Emirates weren’t employment permits but thirty-day travel passes that forbade all work, “paid or unpaid”; their occupations were listed as “Sales Coördinator.” And Dubai was just a stopping-off point. They were bound for U.S. military bases in Iraq.
Lydia and Vinnie were unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Filipinos launder soldiers’ uniforms, Kenyans truck frozen steaks and inflatable tents, Bosnians repair electrical grids, and Indians provide iced mocha lattes. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) is behind most of the commercial “tastes of home” that can be found on major U.S. bases, which include jewelry stores, souvenir shops filled with carved camels and Taliban chess sets, beauty salons where soldiers can receive massages and pedicures, and fast-food courts featuring Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabon. (AAFES’s motto: “We go where you go.”)
The expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. But armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands. These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on U.S. bases, eat at meagre chow halls, and host dance parties featuring Nepalese romance ballads and Ugandan church songs. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law.
The wars’ foreign workers are known, in military parlance, as “third-country nationals,” or T.C.N.s. Many of them recount having been robbed of wages, injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses. Previously unreleased contractor memos, hundreds of interviews, and government documents I obtained during a yearlong investigation confirm many of these claims and reveal other grounds for concern. Widespread mistreatment even led to a series of food riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers.
Amid the slow withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, T.C.N.s have become an integral part of the Obama Administration’s long-term strategy, as a way of replacing American boots on the ground. But top U.S. military officials are seeing the drawbacks to this outsourcing bonanza. Some argue, as retired General Stanley McChrystal did before his ouster from Afghanistan, last summer, that the unregulated rise of the Pentagon’s Third World logistics army is undermining American military objectives. Others worry that mistreatment of foreign workers has become, as the former U.S. Representative Christopher Shays, who co-chairs the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting, describes it, “a human-rights abuse that cannot be tolerated.”
The women working in these bases are often sexually assaulted:
Late one night in early April, 2008, I knocked on the door of Lydia and Vinnie’s shipping container to find Lydia curled up on the floor, knees to chest, chin to knees, crying. Vinnie told me, after some hesitation, that a supervisor had “had his way with” Lydia. According to the two women’s tearful account, non-consensual sex had become a regular feature of Lydia’s life. They said the man would taunt Lydia, calling her a “fucking bitch” and describing the various acts he would like to see her perform. Lydia trembled, her normally confident figure crumpled inward. “If he comes tonight, you have to scream,” Vinnie told Lydia, tapping her fist against the aluminum siding of the shipping container. “Bang on this wall here and scream!”
The next day, I dialled the U.S. Army’s emergency sexual-assault hot line, printed on a pamphlet distributed across the base that read, “Stand Up Against Sexual Assault . . . Make a Difference.” Nobody answered. Despite several calls over several days, the number simply rang and rang. (A U.S. Central Command spokesman, when later reached for comment, noted, “We do track and investigate any report of criminal activity that occurs on our military bases.”)
“Treat others how you want to be treated” The abuses of human rights have grown so egregious that workers uprisings have sprung up and spread:
In the three years since Vinnie and Lydia returned from Iraq, thousands of third-country nationals have tried to make their grievances known, sometimes spectacularly. Previously unreported worker riots have erupted on U.S. bases over issues such as lack of food and unpaid wages. On May 1, 2010, in a labor camp run by Prime Projects International (P.P.I.) on the largest military base in Baghdad, more than a thousand subcontractors—primarily Indians and Nepalis—rampaged, using as weapons fists, stones, wooden bats, and, as one U.S. military policeman put it, “anything they could find.”
The riot started as a protest over a lack of food, according to a whippet-thin worker in the camp named Subramanian. A forty-five-year-old former rice farmer from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Subramanian worked twelve-hour days cleaning the military’s fast-food court. Around seven o’clock on the evening of the riot, Subramanian returned to the P.P.I. compound and lined up for dinner with several thousand other workers. But the cooks ran out of food, with at least five hundred left to feed. This wasn’t the first time; empty plates had become common in the camp during the past year. Several of the men stormed over to the management’s office, demanding more rice. When management refused, he recalls, dozens more entered the fray, then hundreds, and ultimately more than a thousand. Employees started to throw gravel at the managers. Four-foot pieces of plywood crashed through glass windows. Workers broke down the door to the food cellar and made off with as much as they could carry.
The riot spread through the vast camp. At one point, as many as fourteen hundred men were smashing office windows, hurling stones, destroying computers, raiding company files, and battering the entrance to the camp where a large blue-and-white sign reads “Treat others how you want to be treated. . . . No damaging P.P.I. property that has been built for your comfort.” (According to an investigation conducted by K.B.R., “P.P.I. employees . . . became agitated after being told they’d experience a delay while additional food was prepared.” “Upon full assessment of the incident,” a company spokesperson relayed in a written statement, “K.B.R. notified P.P.I. management of the need for changes to prevent any recurrence and worked with the subcontractor to implement those corrective actions.”)