America’s War Workers – Fault LinesOn October 10, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
>>IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE, AND US SOLDIERS ARE PREPARING FOR THEIR LAST MONTHS IN AFGHANISTAN. ABOUT FORTY THOUSAND ARE STILL HERE – BY THE END OF THE YEAR, THERE’LL BE JUST EIGHT THOUSAND. WE TRAVELED TO AFGHANISTAN IN THE MIDST OF THIS TRANSITION. BUT ON THE BASE WE FOUND A STORY THAT ISN’T BEING TOLD. THE PEOPLE DOING THE DAY-TO-DAY WORK HERE ARE MOSTLY CIVILIAN CONTRACT WORKERS – MEN FROM INDIA AND NEPAL, WHO TRAVELED TO A WAR ZONE JUST FOR THE PROMISE OF A GOOD JOB. FOR MANY OF THEM, THAT PROMISE TURNED OUT TO BE A LIE. THEY ENDED UP DECEIVED AND INDEBTED, VICTIMS OF HUMAN TRAFFICKERS WHO THRIVE ON MILITARY CONTRACTS. FAULT LINES EXAMINES THE LIVES OF THESE WORKERS – AND INVESTIGATES HOW THE AMERICAN MILITARY HAS COME TO RELY ON AN INDENTURED WORKFORCE. CAMP MARMAL IS THE LARGEST BASE IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN. NATO’S MISSION HERE CENTERS ON TRAINING THE AFGHAN NATIONAL ARMY.>>The complexity, when we first got here I started thinking about it. It almost becomes overwhelming.>>THIS IS THE US REGIONAL GARRISON COMMANDER, RESPONSIBLE FOR DAILY OPERATIONS IN THE NORTH.>>There’s a lot of great contractors that come up here. Local nationals, third country nationals, US expats. They’re really good, they work together.>>What are the contractors doing?>>Everything, everything you can think of. They work in the dining facilities. They help maintain the living facilities. What it does is that it allows the soldiers to concentrate on their primary mission, rather than having extra duties. We could not do our mission without them. They do a good job for us.>>TWO AMERICAN COMPANIES MANAGE THE MILITARY’S FACILITIES IN AFGHANISTAN: THE FLUOR CORPORATION, AND DYNCORP INTERNATIONAL. THESE COMPANIES ARE CALLED ‘PRIME CONTRACTORS,’ BECAUSE THE US GOVERNMENT HIRED THEM DIRECTLY.>>They all work together and do an outstanding job of serving us really, really good food.>>FLUOR MANAGES CAMP MARMAL, BUT MOST OF THE CONTRACT WORKERS HERE WORK FOR SMALLER COMPANIES – SUBCONTRACTORS – WHICH FLUOR HIRES TO HANDLE BASIC TASKS – COOKING, CLEANING, AND LAUNDRY.>>And there is sort of the enjoyment of watching you’re food made right here in front of you.>>THE PEOPLE SERVING FOOD HERE WORK FOR THESE SUBCONTRACTORS.>>I think you just made their day. That was very sweet.>>CHRISTMAS DINNER. ON THE FACE OF IT, IT’S A LITTLE ODD. AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN TROOPS BEING SERVED BY INDIANS AND NEPALIS – IN AFGHANISTAN. THE WORKERS LINE UP SEPARATELY FOR INDIAN FOOD. WHEN WE REQUESTED TO FILM HERE, THE MILITARY HAD TO ASK PERMISSION FROM FLUOR. FLUOR DENIED OUR REQUEST. BUT I DID CHAT WITH THE WORKERS IN HINDI AND TAMIL WHEN WE RAN INTO THEM ON THE BASE.>>IT WASN’T LONG BEFORE I HEARD ABOUT A UNIQUE ASPECT OF THEIR EMPLOYMENT. TO GET THESE JOBS, THEY ALL HAD TO PAY FEES TO RECRUITING AGENTS.>>I ASKED SEVERAL PEOPLE IF THEY WOULD SPEAK TO ME ON CAMERA ABOUT HOW THEY WERE RECRUITED TO AFGHANISTAN. MOST WERE HESITANT, NOT WANTING TO JEOPARDIZE THEIR JOBS. BUT A FEW HOURS LATER, I GOT A MESSAGE. ONE OF THE WORKERS I MET AT THE DINING HALL JUST CONTACTED ME. HE WANTS TO TALK TO US ABOUT HIS STORY. IT ISN’T EASY TO TALK OPENLY ON THIS BASE EVEN THOUGH HE’S RIGHT HERE. SO WE’RE TRYING TO FIND A PLACE TO MEET. THE WORKER ASKED US TO CONCEAL HIS IDENTITY AND ALTER HIS VOICE. WE’LL CALL HIM “RAVI”. HE TOLD US TO MEET HIM AT AN EMPTY PART OF THE BASE, AFTER HE FINISHED HIS SHIFT.>>RAVI TOLD US HE WAS TRICKED INTO WORKING IN AFGHANISTAN FOR A SALARY THAT WAS LESS THAN HALF OF WHAT HE WAS PROMISED. IT STARTED WHEN A FRIEND BACK HOME INTRODUCED RAVI TO A RECRUITING AGENT, WHO TOLD HIM THAT FOR A HEFTY FEE, HE COULD GET A JOB IN AFGHANISTAN WORKING FOR DYNCORP. HE WOULD FLY TO DUBAI, WHERE HE WOULD CONNECT WITH DYNCORP AND THEN TRAVEL TO THE BASE.>>BUT THERE WAS A CATCH. THE JOB AT DYNCORP DIDN’T ACTUALLY EXIST. INSTEAD, THE AGENT HOUSED RAVI IN A WORK CAMP IN DUBAI. AFTER THREE WEEKS, THE AGENT TOLD HIM THAT FOR AN ADDITIONAL FEE, HE COULD GET RAVI A JOB WITH A SUBCONTRACTOR – ECOLOG.>>So you were promised a job DynCorp for $1200. And then you got a job at Ecolog for $500?>>Yes.>>How much money did you pay the agent?>>RAVI HAD BEEN RECRUITED UNDER FRAUDULENT TERMS THAT COMPELLED HIM TO WORK FOR A YEAR SIMPLY TO PAY OF HIS DEBT. ACCORDING TO THE US STATE DEPARTMENT AND THE UNITED NATIONS, THIS IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING – ILLEGAL UNDER US AND INTERNATIONAL LAW.>>What percentage of workers paid fees to agents in order to get here?>>These people decided. today they will be arrested…>>I know that I’m being surveilled…>>People are not getting the care that they need>>This is a crime against humanity…>>Hands up!>>Don’t shoot!>>Hands up!>>Don’t shoot!>>What do we want?>>Justice!>>When do we want it?>>Now!>>…communicate,,,>>They’re running towards the base…>>…explosions going off… we’re not quite sure what…>>Get em’ how you need?>>To watch more episodes of the Emmy Award winning series Fault Lines, check your local listings or visit aljazeera.com>>WE WANTED TO TALK TO MORE PEOPLE WHO’D WORKED THESE JOBS. BUT TO DO SO, WE HAD TO GO FAR OUTSIDE THE WAR, WHERE THEY COULD SPEAK MORE OPENLY. WE FOUND THEM IN THE RURAL HEARTLAND OF SOUTHERN INDIA, IN THE STATE OF TAMIL NADU.>>The main issue when we talk about trafficking – we can call it as bonded labor – it all starts because they have to pay an amount to get that job.>>SINDHU KAVINAMANNIL USED TO WORK FOR A SUBCONTRACTOR IN KUWAIT. NOW SHE ADVOCATES ON BEHALF OF MIGRANT LABORERS. OVER THE LAST EIGHT YEARS, SHE HAS INTERVIEWED HUNDREDS OF CONTRACT WORKERS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN.>>Debt will make you work anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war zone, doesn’t matter if you’re given a good food or good accommodation. These men are ready to sacrifice.>>GOVINDNAGARAM IS A VILLAGE OF SIX THOUSAND PEOPLE, SEVERAL HOURS FROM THE CLOSEST AIRPORT. LOCALS ESTIMATE THAT EIGHTY TO NINETY PERCENT OF MEN HERE HAVE WORKED IN IRAQ OR AFGHANISTAN.>>If you have a regular job, you might get 5000 rupees – that’s $100 dollars for a month. But what the agents promise, you will get $800 dollars for a month. Even I will think of moving there to get a job.>>WE VISITED A SMALL TEA SHOP, AND WORD SPREAD THAT WE WERE LOOKING TO TALK TO PEOPLE WHO HAD WORKED ON BASES. IT TURNED OUT THIS MAN SERVING TEA HIMSELF HAD BEEN RECRUITED FOR A JOB IN AFGHANISTAN – WITH SUPREME, A CONTRACTOR THAT SUPPLIES FOOD AND FUEL TO NATO.>>WHETHER THEY MADE IT TO AFGHANISTAN OR NOT, EVERYONE HERE HAD A STORY ABOUT HOW THEY HAD BEEN CHEATED. THIS MAN, NAGARAJ, PAID THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS TO AN AGENT FOR A JOB AS A COOK IN AFGHANISTAN. BUT WHEN HE ARRIVED AT THE BASE, HE WAS TOLD HE WOULD BE WORKING AS A WAITER FOR A MUCH LOWER SALARY.>>AT BAGRAM, THE LARGEST US BASE IN AFGHANISTAN, NAGARAJ WORKED FOR ECOLOG, THE SAME COMPANY THAT RAVI HAD TOLD US ABOUT. ECOLOG IS ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT SUBCONTRACTORS IN AFGHANISTAN, WORKING ON BOTH FLUOR AND DYNCORP CONTRACTS.>>It’s completely controlled on fear, the fear of losing the job and the fear of losing the job is because they are in debt back home. Losing your job is like you’re coming back to shame and debt, and what’s my future after that? You’re here, I own you and you work here or if you don’t want to, you go back home. But what about the money you paid? You didn’t pay me? You paid to the agent, I don’t know about the money you paid. Do you have a paper to show?>>BEING FIRED IS ESPECIALLY DAUNTING BECAUSE MOST PEOPLE BORROWED MONEY TO PAY THEIR RECRUITER – AT INTEREST RATES OF 25 TO 40 PERCENT.>>GANESAN SUBBAIAH HAD TO COME UP WITH TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS. AT THE TIME, HE EARNED TWO DOLLARS A DAY.>>GANESAN PAID FOR A JOB IN AFGHANISTAN WITH A SUBCONTRACTOR CALLED PRIME PROJECTS INTERNATIONAL, OR PPI. BUT PPI SENT HIM TO AN AMERICAN BASE IN AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT COUNTRY.>>RAJESH KUMAR WORKED AT CAMP DWYER IN AFGHANISTAN, MAKING SEVEN HUNDRED EIGHTY DOLLARS PER MONTH. BUT IN A YEAR’S WORK THERE, HE ONLY EARNED ABOUT TWO THOUSANDS DOLLARS. THE REST – SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT OF HIS WAGES – WENT TOWARDS THE LOAN TO PAY THE AGENT.>>RAJESH WAS STRUNG ALONG BY FIVE SUCCESSIVE AGENTS, EACH OF WHOM CHARGED AN ADDITIONAL FEE.>>THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE REQUIRES CONTRACTORS TO ASK WORKERS WHETHER THEY PAID RECRUITMENT FEES. BUT IT ISN’T HARD TO SEE WHY FEW PEOPLE ARE COMFORTABLE TELLING THE TRUTH.>>DID THE CONTRACTORS NOT KNOW THAT THEIR EMPLOYEES WERE TRAPPED IN DEBT? OR DID THEY CONDONE THESE ABUSES BECAUSE THEY BENEFITTED IN SOME WAY? TO FIGURE THAT OUT, WE HAD TO RETRACE THE PATH OF THESE WORKERS – TO THE CITY NEARLY EVERYONE HAD TRAVELED THROUGH: DUBAI.>>Dubai is critical. You’ll see most of the contractors have their headquarters incorporated in Dubai.>>SAM MCCAHON IS A FORMER ARMY JAG OFFICER WHO SERVED IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN. FOR THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, HE HAS CAMPAIGNED TO REFORM THE MILITARY CONTRACTING SYSTEM.>>And when it comes to Dubai, people wonder why would someone take them across the ocean if there wasn’t a contract. It gets into human trafficking. The trafficker gets paid when they leave India at the airport the trafficker gets his commission. It doesn’t matter if they have a job over there.>>SUBCONTRACTORS LIKE PPI AND ECOLOG RUN THEIR MIDDLE EAST OPERATIONS OUT OF DUBAI. THEY KEEP LABOR CAMPS HERE TO HOUSE WORKERS EN ROUTE TO MILITARY BASES. AND THEIR RECRUITING AGENTS HAVE CAMPS HERE TOO.>>AWAY FROM THE DAZZLING TOWERS OF DUBAI, A SPRAWLING LABOR CAMP KNOWN AS SONAPUR IS HOME TO HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF MIGRANT WORKERS FROM SOUTH ASIA. IN HINDI, SONAPUR MEANS ‘CITY OF GOLD’ – BUT IN REALITY, IT’S MORE OF A SHANTY TOWN. IT’S THIS POOL OF LABOR THAT AMERICAN SUBCONTRACTORS DIP INTO TO FIND WORKERS FOR US MILITARY BASES IN AFGHANISTAN.>>What would happen if someone tried to apply for a job directly with Ecolog?>>The typical business model, I’ll call it, that’s used by the Gulf subcontractors is they will go to India, or Nepal or Philippines, or Kenya, and they will link up with a recruiter. They work out first the above the board terms. And then there is the below the board agreement. Which is the kickback.>>WE NEEDED TO SPEAK TO SOMEONE INTIMATELY FAMILIAR WITH THE ARRANGEMENTS BETWEEN SUBCONTRACTORS AND THEIR AGENTS. IN AFGHANISTAN, RAVI HAD GIVEN US THE NAME OF THE RECRUITER IN DUBAI WHO CONNECTED HIM TO ECOLOG. TO GET THIS AGENT TO TALK TO US OPENLY, MY PRODUCER AND I POSED AS EMPLOYEES OF A SUBCONTRACTOR, LOOKING TO HIRE INDIAN WORKERS. WE SET UP A MEETING WITH THE AGENT NEAR HIS OFFICE, AND FILMED IT USING TWO HIDDEN CAMERAS. HE TOLD US HIS CREDENTIALS.>>And if they have to stay in Dubai, where will they stay?>>Where is it, in the main city?>>I ASKED THE AGENT ABOUT HIS CONTRACT WITH ECOLOG, AND HE TOLD ME SOMETHING INCREDIBLE. ECOLOG DOES NOT PAY HIM ANY MONEY DIRECTLY. THE MONEY HE MAKES COMES ENTIRELY FROM THE FEES PAID BY JOB CANDIDATES. AND, HE EXPLAINED, SUBCONTRACTORS TAKE A CUT FROM THOSE FEES.>>So it would be a no-fee contract?>>THIS AGENT EVEN OFFERED TO PAY ME MONEY – IF WE HIRED WORKERS FROM HIS CAMP: A HUNDRED TO TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR EACH WORKER WE COULD FIND A JOB FOR IN AFGHANISTAN.>>WORKERS ARE NOT ONLY PAYING A RECRUITER, THEY ARE UNKNOWINGLY PAYING THEIR EMPLOYER – THE SUBCONTRACTOR – FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF HAVING A JOB.>>The men are traded and sold just like chattel. They are things. They are commodities to be used. So the only one who is not making money is the worker who is providing the labor. Everyone else – the recruiter, the subcontractor, the prime contractor. They are all making a lot of profit. But most of it is coming from this worker, who cannot afford it.>>And how much money are we talking about?>>Now according to the government records, it shows that those subcontractors are making anywhere between 70-300% profits.>>SUBCONTRACTORS MAKE THESE KIND OF PROFITS BY BILLING PRIME CONTRACTORS AT RATES FAR HIGHER THAN THEIR ACTUAL COSTS.>>Let’s say I’m PPI, and I tell them I’ll give you laborers to pick up your trash and clean your toilets, and I’m only going to charge you $6 dollars an hour, that seems fair and reasonable. I get the award because I say $6 an hour. I know I’m only going to pay the worker $1.65 an hour. So most of the difference between $1.65 and $6 is my profit. About 90% of that amount is profit.>>PRIME CONTRACTORS LIKE FLUOR COULD HIRE WORKERS DIRECTLY FOR LESS. BUT THE WAY THE SYSTEM IS SET UP, THEY ACTUALLY HAVE AN INCENTIVE TO USE SUBCONTRACTORS THAT OVERCHARGE. THAT’S BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT HAS AGREED TO REIMBURSE PRIME CONTRACTORS FOR ALL OF THEIR COSTS, AND THEN PAY THEM A PERCENTAGE OF THAT TOTAL AS A FIXED PROFIT.>>So the economic advantage is to incur as many costs as you can legitimately do so. The prime contractors make millions of dollars in additional profits, by subcontracting it out.>>So the US government is subsidizing human trafficking?>>No, we’re paying for it directly. This is the only form of human trafficking where the taxpayer directly pays the human trafficker.>>So Fluor and Dyncorp know that you’re supplying to Ecolog?>>WHEN WE REACHED OUT TO FLUOR, THE COMPANY SAID IT HOLDS SUBCONTRACTORS IN AFGHANISTAN TO A QUOTE ‘ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY REGARDING TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS.’ ECOLOG TOLD US IT’S AGAINST COMPANY POLICY FOR ANY EMPLOYEE TO PAY A RECRUITMENT FEE. AND THAT ALL OF ITS POLICIES ARE FULLY ALIGNED WITH US GOVERNMENT REQUIREMENTS. THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE HAS NOT RESPONDED TO REPEATED REQUESTS FOR COMMENT. IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, THE PENTAGON, CONGRESS AND THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HAVE ALL ISSUED RULES DESIGNED TO STOP TRAFFICKING ON MILITARY CONTRACTS. BUT THOSE RULES HAVE NEVER BEEN ENFORCED.>>Even though this is against US law, there have been no criminal prosecutions, there have been no civil actions, there have not even been one contractor that was suspended from getting additional government contracts. Even though everyone, including the government, has been aware that they are engaged in human trafficking.>>TODAY THERE ARE NEARLY FORTY THOUSAND THIRD COUNTRY NATIONALS WORKING ON BASES OPERATED BY US CENTRAL COMMAND – IN AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ, AND ELSEWHERE. BUT EVEN AS THE UNITED STATES WINDS DOWN ITS WARS, THESE WORKERS REMAIN CRITICAL TO AMERICAN FACILITIES AROUND THE WORLD.>>The problem doesn’t go away because we are still going to have needs of support both for Department of Defense and Department of State. Now they’re starting to use third country nationals for base support operations in Djibouti and other parts of Africa as well.