Over the past decade, the U.S. military has outsourced its overseas base-support responsibilities to private contractors, which have filled the lowest-paying jobs on military bases with third-country nationals, migrant workers who are neither U.S. citizens nor locals. As of January 2014, there were 37,182 third-country nationals working on bases in the U.S. Central Command region, which includes Afghanistan and Iraq — outnumbering both American and local contract workers.
These laborers do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, construction and other support tasks necessary to operate military facilities. In Afghanistan they primarily come from India and Nepal and are employed by subcontractors for one of two large American companies, Fluor Corp. and Dyncorp International, which manage U.S. bases in Afghanistan under the Department of Defense’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program. Dozens of subcontracting companies, mostly headquartered in the Persian Gulf, work on Fluor and Dyncorp contracts.
South Asian workers are at the bottom of the social hierarchy on U.S. bases. They earn far less than American or European contractors, work 12-hour days with little or no time off and, on some bases, aren’t allowed to use cellphones or speak to military personnel. On the base we visited, Camp Marmal, most were surprised and nervous when we approached them, concerned that talking to journalists could get them in trouble. One young man’s face contorted in terror when asked whether he had paid a recruiting fee. He shook his head no, fearful of any reprisals. “To come here, you have to use an agent,” another worker told us. “There is no other way. So we pay money to come.”
“We can call this bonded labor or human trafficking, because it all starts with false promises about what the job is, and they have to pay an amount to get the job,” Kavinamannil explains. “Debt will make you work anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war zone.” When we reached out to Fluor, which manages Camp Marmal, the company said it “provides hotlines to allow individuals to report anonymously any suspected instances of human trafficking” and holds its subcontractors to a “zero tolerance policy regarding trafficking in persons.”