Although military privatization in Iraq and Afghanistan has received extensive coverage, the stereotype of the wartime contractor as a gun-toting white American working for Blackwater is in some ways misleading: The overwhelming majority of the military’s contractor work force in the Middle East consists of local workers or “Third Country Nationals” (TCNs) from India, Uganda and dozens of other countries. Hundreds of thousands of TCNs perform much of the manual labor on US bases in war zones, from food service to armed guard duty. They are recruited through the same networks that have pulled workers from across the Indian Ocean region and elsewhere to the Gulf in recent decades. As with migrant labor in the Gulf more generally, stories of exploitation and abuse are common. And reform efforts, as “America’s War Workers” shows, have borne little fruit.
Despite Al Jazeera’s frustrating decision to block its videos from being viewed online in the United States (the video will go online for non-US viewers on March 12), you can read an excellent account by Kamat and her colleague Samuel Black detailing their findings. They interviewed workers on a NATO base in Afghanistan, in worker transit camps in Dubai and in villages in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Posing as subcontractors of US corporations, the journalists caught a labor recruiter on tape offering them bribes to hire his workers — bribes paid for out of the thousands of dollars each worker must pay as a “recruitment fee” for the job opportunity.
Migrant workers on US bases frequently report taking on enormous debts to cover recruitment fees, which then require months (if not years) to pay off. The Obama administration has outlawed the use of recruitment fees, while Congress is okay with them as along as they are not “unreasonable.” The workers interviewed by Al Jazeera explained the limits of such reforms:
“We’ve already paid the agents for the job,” explained a man named Kumaran, who said his agent — after collecting a hefty fee — made him sign a declaration stating he had not paid anything. “If we tell the US military that we paid a fee, they’ll just send us back and we’ll lose everything.”
The abuse and exploitation endured by migrant workers, however, is not just evidence of privatization run amok: It is also symptomatic of these workers’ political utility to Washington. In Iraq and Afghanistan, TCNs have often outnumbered the contingents of close US allies, yet they don’t factor in to the politically sensitive troop figures that drive much of the Beltway conversation. As for the deaths and injuries that TCNs suffer, no one seems to be counting them, at least not systematically. At the same time, because migrants are easily deported, they present less of a challenge to manage than locals, whom the US views as potential infiltrators working with insurgents.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the plight of these migrants mirrors that of detainees in Guantánamo and other extraterritorial prisons in the “global war on terror.” These prisoners are outside the reach of most US domestic courts, thousands of miles away from their families and detained in places where they have little chance of laying claim to local sympathy. The US prefers to keep prisoners and workers in a legally ambiguous space and status, disconnected from the public, whether in the US, the countries where they find themselves or their homelands.