The Sordid Link Between the US Government, Popular American Restaurants, and Shady Contractors Who Violate Workers’ Human Rights

Last year, I was blown away by an incredible article in The New Yorker that detailed forced labor and terrible working conditions on US army bases. I knew, of course, that the US government has been implicated in a number of atrocious human rights abuses. And, if pressed, I would not have guessed that conditions on army bases were good. But I had no real idea of what life is like on army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the extent to which the rights of workers on these bases are abused.

Apparently, parts of US army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are reminiscent of middle American malls:  Cinnabon, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut offer comforting familiarity, while beauty shops, coffee shops, and just shopping shops provide other ways to spend your money. But if you thought that fast food and chain restaurants in the US provide poor jobs for workers, compare that to what’s happening in American restaurants on US bases overseas. As Sarah Stillman noted in The New Yorker last year:

A common recruiting story involves a tempting ad for Middle East “Salad Men” torn out of a newspaper, or an online job posting that promises “openings for cooks/chefs/master chefs for one of the best . . . middle east jobs.” Given the desperate circumstances of many applicants, few questions are asked, and some subcontractors sneak workers to U.S. bases without security clearances, seeking to bypass basic wage and welfare regulations. “No one plays straight here,” a foreign concession manager with six years of experience in Iraq told me. He introduced me to three young Nepali and Bangladeshi workers in a nearby Popeye’s and Cinnabon, each of whom had paid a smuggler between three hundred and four hundred dollars to bring them onto the base with a fake letter of authorization. That’s in addition to the money—an average of three thousand dollars—they had paid a recruiter in their home country to get the job.

Such sums are hardly unusual. A typical manpower agency charges applicants between two thousand and four thousand dollars, a small fortune in the countries where subcontractors recruit. To raise the money, workers may pawn heirlooms, sell their wedding rings or land or livestock, and take out high-interest loans. U.S. military guidelines prohibit such “excessive” fees. But, in hundreds of interviews with T.C.N.s, I seldom met a worker who had paid less than a thousand dollars for his or her job, and I never learned of a case in which anyone was penalized for charging these fees.

It’s equally uncommon to meet a worker who receives the salary he or she was promised. A twenty-five-year-old Taco Bell employee on a major U.S. base in Iraq told me that he had paid a recruiting agency in Nepal four thousand dollars. “You’ll make the money back so quick in Iraq!” he was assured. When he arrived in Baghdad, in May, 2009, he was housed in a shipping container behind the U.S. Embassy, in the Green Zone, where he slept on soiled mattresses with twenty-five other migrants from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Many learned that they were to earn as little as two hundred and seventy-five dollars a month as cooks and servers for U.S. soldiers—a fraction of what they’d been promised, and a tiny sliver of what U.S. taxpayers are billed for their labor.

So he paid another agent three hundred dollars to drive him in a taxi to a U.S. base in northern Iraq. There, an Indian smuggler charged an additional three hundred dollars to help him get a five-hundred-dollar-a-month job making burritos. “I am safe now,” he said, tearfully, from the food-delivery window. “That is past, yeah? The Army is my father and my mother.”

Perhaps what shocked me most, after reading the article, was the nearly absolute silence in US media regarding these abuses. The US government is wasting heaps of money on corrupt contractors who violate workers’ fundamental human rights, and almost no one has noticed. And now, though the United States is finally winding down its overseas fighting, this does not necessarily help workers stranded on US bases. According to Stillman:

The “drawdown” of operations in Iraq, on the other hand, has created new difficulties for T.C.N.s there. Last summer, Colonel Richard E. Nolan, of the military’s contracting office, expressed concern that T.C.N.s were being abandoned on U.S. bases when their companies lost contracts or were ordered to shed numbers. I met several such workers, one of whom, a Popeye’s employee, had been told by a sympathetic boss to pack his bags, carry them to the office of a U.S. commander, and fall to his knees weeping, in the hope of being granted a ticket home.

At Kandahar Airfield, in Afghanistan, I talked to Joel Centeno, a Filipino who sat with his head buried in his hands on a picnic bench behind a T.G.I. Friday’s. A Pentagon subcontractor had laid him off but refused to provide him with a return ticket. (“Thank you and appreciated your contribution to the team,” his termination letter read.) Centeno was among the war’s new breed of workers: adrift on U.S. bases, searching for work, unable to afford the ticket home, and fearful of loan sharks who await them there.

Last month, the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School and the ACLU released a report on trafficking and abuse of workers by US Government contractors. This is the report I’ve been waiting for:  an in-depth examination, from a human rights perspective, on the situation of workers on US army bases. The report looks at the recruiting process and working conditions of “third country nationals” (TCNs), explains the international and US prohibitions on trafficking and forced labor, and explores how the US government has responded to these abuses. The report also remarks that these abuses are not limited to Department of Defense contractors; apparently similar abuses have also occurred from State Department contractors servicing US embassies in Middle Eastern countries.

The report concludes with numerous recommendations for prevention, oversight, and enforcement regarding contracted workers. I encourage you to check out the report for the full list of suggestions, which include the following:

  •  Prohibit trafficking, deceptive recruiting, forced labor and other abuses in US Government contracts
  • Hold prime contractors responsible for the recruitment and living and working conditions of TCNs serving under contracts or subcontracts
  • Provide valid employment contracts in advance of the TCN’s departure from his/her home country
  • Require contractors to provide fair pay and time off, safe and habitable living conditions, and medical care and insurance
  • Implement formal mechanisms to receive and process reports of trafficking and labor abuse
  • Expand federal jurisdiction to include all government contractors

This is an important issue that deserves much more attention. Here’s hoping that the newest report will help spark greater pressure on the US government to ensure that US taxpayer money no longer funds such terrible abuses.

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