Assembling a Transnational Workforce
Assembling a Transnational Workforce
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter contrasts the legal hiring processes and key nodes for recruitment and travel to and from worksites in Afghanistan and the Middle East for Bosnians, who tend to be directly hired by prime contractors, and Filipinos, who have primarily worked for subcontractors. It traces social networks, recruiting agencies, internet forums, and company-specific application processes that constitute certain labor supply chains. The chapter focuses on interviews with workers and labor brokers in the Philippines in order to trace the various routes traversed by Filipinos and Bosnians who have worked in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa over the past two decades. It also examines trafficking and underground recruiting channels. Legal and illegal recruiting can be rather difficult to neatly delineate, and thus it is better view them as positions along a spectrum rather than dichotomous categories.
There were so many people in the streets. Maybe a thousand people. … You would register [with the recruiting agency] and then wait, because you never knew when your name would be called. If it was called and you weren’t there you missed your chance because it wouldn’t be called again. After one week I heard my name.
The previous chapter identified logistics spaces and labor as two foundational elements of military operations. While the former receives more attention, it is the latter that animates war. Whether drone flights at remote locations in Africa or counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, the U.S. military depends on the beating heart of logistical labor. Due to the increase in contracting, the composition of this labor is increasingly civilian and foreign rather than American and uniformed. Consequently the military is now inextricably entangled with the business of transnational labor acquisition, as uncomfortable as it is with acknowledging this fact.
Assembling a constantly shifting workforce of hundreds of thousands of individuals from around the world is itself a massive logistical undertaking, one that involves its own distinctive combinations of sites and labor. It depends on a vast “migration infrastructure” of “systematically interlinked technologies, institutions, and actors that facilitate and condition mobility.”1 Some elements of this migration infrastructure, like recruiting agencies, government bureaucrats and websites, are well known, while others, such as hotels and suburban malls, less so.
In this and the following chapter I trace the various routes traversed by Filipinos and Bosnians who have worked in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa over the past two decades. The focus of this chapter is legal, or visible, labor procurement, while the next examines trafficking and underground recruiting channels. In practice, of course, legal and illegal recruiting can be rather difficult to neatly delineate, and thus it is better view them as positions along a spectrum (p.90) rather than dichotomous categories. How, for instance, should one categorize the experience of Bosnians who signed Asian contracts with DynCorp because they were falsely promised that they would be able to switch over to a European contract when they arrived in Afghanistan? Despite this deception, I include their accounts here due to the relative lack of coercion experienced by Bosnians compared to the examples of trafficking from South and Southeast Asian countries, such as the case of the twelve Nepalese workers killed in Iraq.
For both Filipino and Bosnian workers, the experience of gaining employment with logistics contractors has been greatly influenced by their countries’ respective histories of involvement with the U.S. military, and the Philippines’ position as a labor-exporting state, as discussed in chapters 3 and 4. This has produced distinct recruiting processes, as well as differences in the types of firms that seek labor in each country, as illustrated by the following two stories. The first, told by Carlos, is at once both serendipitous—in his telling—and indicative of the frantic atmosphere accompanying the mad dash by KBR’s largest subcontractor, PPI, to amass thousands of Filipino workers in early 2004 to fulfill its contractual obligations in Iraq.
I was visiting my wife in Manila. She was a secretary at a school near Anglo [AES]. And I saw many people in the streets. And I just got curious. People sleeping in the street, waiting for an opportunity. I saw when I was riding by in a jeepney. So I stopped. Because every time I go to Manila I bring my passport and résumé. Then I went to people and asked—I met friends from Pampanga—and they said, “They need workers in Iraq, salary is $600 a month.”
So what was the interview like?
They asked me about international cooking. How to cook a steak, how long, how to make a sauce. I passed all those questions. “OK you are hired. You can go in three days.” I didn’t even go back home to Pampanga, I just waited there for three days!
Did you tell your wife?
I just told my wife, “Bring me some clothes, I need this and this.” She said, “Why?” “Because I am going to Iraq.”
Did you see your children?
I didn’t see my children, only my wife, because she was working in Manila. And I left my wife three months pregnant at that time. I was really lucky. Because many Filipinos were waiting a month or more, but only three days for me.
Carlos’s experience can be contrasted with Asim’s account of obtaining a position with KBR in 2006:
How did you get the job?
I applied online actually. I applied online and one day some woman [working for KBR] called me and said, “Are you still interested in the job?” “Of course I am.” She asked me if I had a passport. She asked “Can you come tomorrow in Sarajevo?” I said, “Why not?”
Where in Sarajevo?
A hotel, the Holiday Inn. First I spoke with one guy. A big American guy, a bull like me. He asked simple questions. He wanted to know if I understand, you know, can we speak same English language. He asked simple questions about how I travel, what kind of car I drive, what kind of weather is outside. After that I had a conversation with three different people about the job.
What kind of job did you apply for?
I was electric, electric mechanic. That was my first job down there.
So construction of buildings and wiring?
Yeah. And I passed all those tests. And seven or ten days after they sent me to America, to Houston. I was in Houston for like four weeks. And after that a straight flight to Dubai, and after Dubai, Baghdad.
For Filipino workers like Carlos, obtaining a job with a subcontractor such as PPI was with few exceptions mediated by recruiting agencies, like AES, which serve as the linchpin of the labor export system established by the Philippines. In the absence of such a system, Bosnian job seekers like Asim navigate an alternative world populated by hotels and websites offering job postings or information on the recruiting practices of prime contracting firms like KBR. In the following two sections I examine further the distinct temporalities and geographies of recruiting in the two countries. The chapter concludes with a brief consideration of the logistics involved in assembling a global workforce.
Recruiting Agencies, Body Shops, and Fast Labor Acquisition
Recruiting agencies occupy a prominent place in Filipinos’ accounts of obtaining a job with military logistics firms. This is even the case for many who found work in Iraq and Afghanistan after travel bans were imposed, and agencies could have their licenses revoked for working with contractors seeking labor for projects in those countries, as I discuss in the next chapter. The reason for this is that while the state regulates labor export it is the agencies that serve as labor brokers that connect foreign firms with Filipino workers.2 In simplified form, the process (p.92) proceeds as follows. First prospective employers select a recruiting agency to help them fulfill their labor needs. This is facilitated by labor niche specialization, as the thousands of firms competing for business tend to specialize in certain regions and/or occupations to increase their competitiveness.3 After selecting an agency prospective employers then register with the POEA, which provides accreditation allowing them to seek Filipino labor. This step can either be done directly or by their chosen firm. At this point the agencies take center stage, recruiting qualified workers and processing them for foreign deployment.4
One significant fact about the industry is that almost all recruiting agencies are based in the Metro Manila region, typically operating out of small, nondescript office buildings. There are several reasons for this spatial agglomeration of operations. The most important is that being located in the capital next to regulating agencies and foreign embassies facilitates rapid acquisition of required government documents and overseas visas. In addition to this, certification and testing for certain occupations, such as sea-based workers and performing artists, is concentrated in Manila. The city is also host to a large number of occupational schools and universities that focus on training workers for overseas jobs. More generally, as the country’s primate city Manila offers the largest potential pool of skilled and unskilled labor.5
Consequently, living or working in Manila, as Carlos’s story above illustrates, greatly increases the chances of learning about overseas opportunities, whether through happenstance or personal connections. One example of the latter pathway is provided by Flora, who also began working for PPI in 2004: “I have always wanted to work overseas. Because I wanted to give my mother a comfortable life. I applied as a domestic helper [before] but wasn’t hired. I heard about the job because the secretary of Mr. Helliwell [Neil Helliwell, the CEO of PPI] lived on the same street as me. Her sister is my childhood friend. Her sister approached me and asked if I wanted to work in Iraq. And I said, ‘Yes, why not?’”
PPI was just one of several companies seeking labor in the Philippines shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Another prominent one was the Turkish firm Serka, which was awarded a subcontract by KBR for staffing and management of several DFACs at bases in northern Iraq in summer 2003. Michelle, the wife of one of the first workers hired by Serka, remembers that “in October 2003 when we were riding in a bus there was a newspaper advertisement for bakers and cooks at U.S. bases, and a good salary. When he [her husband] came back from Saudi [Arabia] we opened a bakery, but you can’t make much money here. So we saw the advertisement [that said] ‘Baker $800’ and came to the agency, Blazing [Star]. He was in the first batch to go to Iraq. Processing was only 10 days. … This was the same time that Bush was here visiting Arroyo.” Like several Filipino workers I interviewed, Michelle’s husband had previous experience in the Gulf region, (p.93) working as a chef for years in Saudi Arabia. Michelle wanted to work in Iraq too, but was told by Blazing Star that Serka did not permit couples to work in the DFACs. So instead she decided to serve as a local recruiter for the agency.
Local recruiters are another essential component of the overseas recruiting network in the Philippines. Located in villages and towns outside Manila, or on its outskirts, they work with agencies to advertise opportunities with neighbors, friends, and family. In exchange they are typically paid a fee for each person they successfully direct to an agency. A former PPI employee in Iraq who now works as a local recruiter in her village told me she receives 1,000 pesos per person, which is roughly $20. Local recruiters may also provide guidance for the application process. Michelle estimates that she helped more than 100 people get a job with Serka in the decade after her husband went to Iraq. Roughly half of these were from her barangay (village or neighborhood). What is remarkable about this is that few had previous experience in the food service industry, and most of the men—who constituted the majority of recruits from her neighborhood—did not even have rudimentary cooking knowledge. So Michelle devised an informal two-to-four week cooking and baking “boot camp,” turning construction workers and tricycle drivers into bakers, pastry chefs, and kitchen assistants. “They didn’t know anything when we started. I had to teach them the basics about flour,” Michelle recalls. “I even approached bakeries here and asked them if they would let the men work without pay for a couple of weeks so they would be able to learn more about it.”
In some cases local recruiters have preexisting personal or familial connections with recruiting agencies. AES enrolled family and friends in the Pampanga region northwest of Manila, where the Arcilla family is from. This involved setting up temporary satellite recruiting centers in homes according to several workers from the region. One, Sam, recalls that “the recruiter was from my barangay, Santa Lucia. There was a family in that area, which is an extended family of Arcilla and they recruited a lot of people from that area. And I was just really lucky when I had the chance to work for PPI. Because I saw this big line when I was passing through [Santa Lucia]. I was working as a factory worker. … So I asked one guy and he said they are hiring in Iraq for PPI. And I applied.” One consequence of this extensive Pampanga-based recruiting network was a remarkable spatial concentration of PPI’s Filipino workforce. Prior to the imposition of the travel ban in summer 2004, roughly 70 percent of its workers came from the Pampanga region, according to AES records.6 The effect could be even more pronounced at the level of a barangay containing perhaps a few thousand people, with dozens working on bases in Iraq.
At this point it may be useful to discuss a distinction among military contractors that shapes labor needs and one’s recruiting and work experience. In most (p.94) cases companies either receive a direct contract from the military to provide specific services—for example, PWC, which was tasked with shipping food to bases in Iraq through its massive DLA contract—or are subcontracted by a prime contractor like KBR for certain tasks, such as running DFACs on a base, which is what Serka was subcontracted to perform. Companies like Serka and PWC come to the Philippines looking to fulfill well-defined labor needs (kitchen staff and truck drivers, respectively). Hence Michelle’s boot camp to provide her neighbors with a basic set of cooking skills and knowledge that would allow them to pass the screening process devised by Serka’s recruiting agency.
A second type of logistics firm is what I call body shops. Body shops are companies that have multiple contracts or subcontracts covering a range of responsibilities. Several of KBR’s largest subcontractors in Iraq, such as PPI, Kulak, and GCC, began as or evolved into body shops. Another prominent body shop in Iraq was First Kuwaiti General Contracting. In addition to holding several subcontracts with KBR, First Kuwaiti was also a significant DoS contractor whose tasks included construction of a massive new embassy in Baghdad and running the embassy’s DFAC for the security guard force. In contrast to companies like Serka that have specific labor requirements, body shops provide a variety of services requiring a large pool of unskilled or semiskilled labor.7 A partial accounting of work performed by PPI employees I interviewed is illustrative. Their jobs have included construction, washing laundry, serving food in DFACs, guarding Iraqi day laborers, cleaning soldiers’ living quarters, running MWR facilities, cleaning latrines, driving buses on bases, and cataloguing inventory in warehouses.
Filipinos’ accounts of the recruiting process and life on bases make clear that body shops tend to see their workers as fungible commodities that can be deployed and redeployed to perform whatever task has the greatest immediate need. Neither Sam nor Carlos, for instance, worked in the fields that they originally applied for. In Sam’s case he was told by the local recruiter in Santa Lucia that PPI was looking for administrative assistants. When he got to the main office in Manila, AES staff said they wanted masons and carpenters. Because of his experience in a factory the company decided to hire him as a construction “engineer.” Another early PPI hire, Angel, was recruited as a warehouseman. After a year of this work, he recalls, “PPI needed [LN] escorts, so they trained us.” This job entailed going outside the base and picking construction day laborers from among the throngs of Iraqis looking for work: “We would go outside the gate. And we were escorted by military because we don’t have a gun. And we go outside and if the company need 100 person we select there. We went to a place like a cottage where there was more than a hundred people sitting around waiting. And we would pick the workers needed.” Angel was chosen for this job because he spoke (p.95) some Arabic as a result of time working in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s and doing reconstruction and cleanup work “in Kuwait in 1991 after the war.”
PPI workers hired during those early hectic months also describe a minimalist recruiting and vetting process in which an applicant’s skills and experience were secondary considerations. Flora recalls that interviews—if one can even call them that—were conducted in groups of ten to twelve applicants at once. The first involved an AES employee who “asked how we found out about the job. And that’s it.” Following this she was escorted with the other applicants into a room with Neil Helliwell. “The only question he asked was, ‘Aren’t you afraid of going to a warzone?’ I said, ‘No.’” Shortly afterward she was informed that she was hired. Another PPI employee, Fidel, also remembers meeting Helliwell with ten other applicants: “The interview was not very hard. Just, ‘OK. You want to go to Iraq. Why? Are you willing?’ ‘Yes sir, I’m willing sir.’ ‘OK. What’s your category? What do you know? What’s your job?’ Like this. … At that time if any position is available you grabbed it. It was very easy because this Neil Helliwell, he knows that Filipinos are—what did he call it?—we can be put in a different place, very easy to train, like, ‘flexible Filipinos.’” Fidel applied as a warehouseman and forklift driver, which matched his experience. Upon arriving in Iraq he was assigned to housekeeping, where he worked for the next two years before transferring to a warehouse position.
That body shops figure prominently in cases of trafficking and egregious labor abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan is not unrelated to their dehumanizing view of workers as commodities. First Kuwaiti, for example, recruited dozens of Filipinos to work on its embassy project in Iraq under false pretenses, originally promising them jobs at luxury hotels in Kuwait and Dubai. As for PPI, according to one former KBR administrator, in 2004 its man camp at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad “looked like a concentration camp” with workers standing in lines waiting to be served “curry and fish heads from big old pots” and eating “outside in 140 degree heat.”8
Despite this, many I talked with echo Carlos and Fidel in describing themselves as “lucky” to get hired by subcontractors like PPI and Serka. They cite several factors that makes employment on military bases in the region more desirable than similar positions for civilian projects in Middle East. Perhaps the most important is that these jobs tend to pay more than nonmilitary work. A salary of $600 a month for washing laundry, $450 working as a kitchen assistant, or $800 as a baker could be $100–400 more than the same job in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Moreover, companies in those countries often deduct expenses for either accommodation or food, resulting in an effective monthly wage $100–200 less than stated in a formal contract. Such deductions are not applied to workers on (p.96) military bases. Similarly, for positions in the Middle East, recruiting agencies often charge successful applicants fees of several hundred dollars. These fees ostensibly cover processing and labor expenditures. They also bolster profit margins, with foreign employers offloading these costs onto labor migrants. In 2003–4 military contractors were so desperate to quickly amass large workforces that they instructed their agencies in the Philippines to waive recruiting fees, instead paying them sufficient amounts per employee to cover both processing costs and profit margins. In fact, Serka’s original agency partner, Blazing Star, was fired when the company learned that it was still charging recruits several hundred dollars despite these extra payments.
A final factor is the relaxation of age restrictions. Several people with experience in the region told me that companies in the Middle East refuse to hire older workers, with cutoffs ranging between thirty-five and forty years of age depending on the company and industry. On bases in Iraq and Afghanistan these restrictions have tended to be substantially looser. One Serka worker I interviewed was nearly sixty when he was hired. Another PPI employee—who worked in the region for more than a decade prior to 2003, including for military contractors in Kuwait repairing oil infrastructure following the first Gulf War in 1991—recalls, “At the time I was forty-nine, and Anglo [AES] had an age limit of fifty, because it was a warzone. At that age, in other places, work is not allowed.”
These factors—especially the lack of recruiting fees and relaxed age restrictions—reflect the immense pressure subcontractors were under to assemble a large pool of workers to perform contracted tasks in 2003–4. As noted in chapter 2, KBR’s bid for the LOGCAP III contract stated that the company would self-perform most of the required work. While this was feasible for relatively smaller operations like the peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, such plans were overwhelmed by the immensity of labor requirements to support military campaigns in the Middle East. Following the end of the first phase of operations in Iraq in May 2003, the military insisted on a rapid scaling up of logistical support. That month Army officers ordered KBR to establish more than thirty DFACs at bases across the country, with the expectation that troops would be able to eat “franks and beans” and other hot food by July 4th. In the ensuing months the company “went from supporting tens of thousands to supporting hundreds of thousands,” necessitating the turn to subcontractors.9
Another problem KBR and other military contractors faced concerning labor was that they were initially barred by the U.S. government from hiring Iraqis due to security concerns. Indeed, PWC’s first response to the travel bans in 2004 was to inquire with the U.S. embassy in Kuwait about the possibility of hiring Iraqi drivers, a request that was turned down. Former KBR supervisor Mike Lamb also identified this as a key reason his company turned to subcontractors from the region (p.97) to acquire the necessary labor: “Going into this war, the original intention was to use Iraqis for labor. … We were going to use locals. We were going to help the economy. We were going to hire people who were unemployed. But for security reasons we hired labor that has been working in the Middle East for decades. Indonesians, Filipinos, Indians … had been working in countries like Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia. And they were [working for] companies that already had the supply lines for the labor.”10 With a supportive government and a well-developed recruiting industry, the Philippines was a logical supply line to turn to for labor needs.
No company assembled a larger workforce in these first few hectic months than PPI. By early September 2003 its recruiting efforts in the Philippines were in full swing. In the ensuing seven months the company sent more than 4,000 workers to Iraq, an average of nearly 150 a week. Everyone I talked with who was hired by the company in this period highlighted the crowd of applicants outside the AES office. According to Nicky Arcilla, at its peak the agency was receiving 1,500–2,000 applications a day.11 Thousands of people like Danilo—mostly from Pampanga and towns near Manila—slept on the street and sidewalks outside the agency because it was too difficult to go home every night and they feared losing a job if their name was called when they were not there. Eventually nearby residences started to sell food and offer use of their showers and toilets for a fee.
It was not just the recruiting process that was rushed. Isko recalls an equally fast deployment schedule: “After your name was called you would be sent directly to the rooftop [of the AES office] and not allowed to go home again. Because tomorrow might be a flight. Once the flight was scheduled you went to the airport and signed the contract there. After this we went directly to the special immigration lane for PPI workers. All passengers on the plane were PPI—200 plus!” Such expediency was facilitated by foreign embassies and the Philippine government, who worked closely with recruiting agencies and subcontracting companies to speed up processing. Though not going into detail, Arcilla acknowledges that his company received “special privilege[s] … to process them [workers], expedite the papers” from the POEA.12 Likewise, at the peak of Serka’s hiring binge the Turkish embassy devoted resources to process more than a 100 visa applications in less than a day, a task that would typically take a week.
When the Philippines imposed its travel ban to Iraq in August 2004, authorities estimated that nearly 5,000 Filipinos recruited through official channels were already working in the country for military contractors (this total did not include truck drivers hauling goods from Kuwait to Iraq), with 1,000 more in transit at Dubai and another 6,000 “in the pipeline to go to Iraq.”13 Eventually a good number of these 7,000 people caught up in the ban would find their way to bases in Iraq or Afghanistan, either through their own means or with the help of recruiters (p.98) that continued to ply their trade for military contractors despite the ban and threat of delicensing. That, though, is a story to be told in chapter 7. Before this I need to describe the Bosnian recruiting process, which differs significantly from the Philippine one.
Navigating Websites, Hotels, and Shifting Prime Contractors
Whereas the Philippines has a robust recruiting ecosystem and a well-developed institutional framework that facilitates labor export, companies looking to the Balkans for labor have had to develop their own procedures and provide their own recruiting manpower. Consequently there are significant differences in the recruiting process in the region, as well as the type of military contractors that seek labor. These differences are manifest in the distinctive narrative anchors and spaces highlighted by those I talked with in Bosnia. In contrast to Filipino workers, whose world is populated by subcontractors, recruiting agencies, and government policies and bureaucrats, Bosnian narratives stress a shifting constellation of LOG-CAP prime contractors, websites, and hotels scattered across multiple continents.
In comparing experiences of Bosnian and Filipino laborers, it is necessary to start with the observation that the Bosnian state is completely absent in either regulating or facilitating overseas labor recruitment by foreign firms. This stark contrast with the Philippines has a number of implications, not least concerning how one can periodize recruiting practices and histories for these two flows of labor. For Filipinos the key disjuncture centers on the Philippines’ imposition of travel bans—first to Iraq in 2004 and subsequently to Afghanistan in 2007. Those hired prior to the bans encountered a recruiting process and actors that are broadly similar to those who apply for similar jobs in Asia and the Middle East, with the exceptions highlighted above. Following the bans, recruiting was pushed underground, altering pathways and increasing risks for both workers and local recruiters. In Bosnia the critical juncture is the transition from the LOGCAP III contract to its successor, LOGCAP IV, at the end of 2008. This transition, as I described in chapter 4, led to a significant downshift in pay and status for Bosnians recruited under the new contract, particularly those who work for DynCorp in Afghanistan. It also altered the recruiting and deployment process, which has become more truncated.
Under the LOGCAP III contract, KBR, which was the sole prime contractor, was the main recruiter of Bosnian labor.14 This was directly related to Brown & Root’s logistics support for U.S. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia since 1996. Indeed, (p.99) most of those recruited during the first years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq transitioned directly from jobs with the company in Bosnia. This was fortunate timing for those who made the jump, as the peacebuilding mission was beginning to wind down in the early 2000s. Moreover, Bosnians who joined KBR’s projects in CENTCOM experienced a substantial uplift in pay and status, with salaries that were comparable to American employees holding similar job titles.
All Bosnian KBR hires under LOGCAP III—whether existing employees or new hires—were required to go through a lengthy recruiting and deployment process. The first step was submitting application materials online at the company’s jobs site. This was necessary even for those who found out about an opportunity from friends or former managers who had transferred to Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, during the mad dash to acquire labor in 2003 KBR temporarily placed a moratorium on hiring workers who were still employed by the company in Bosnia due to the large number who were being poached to join projects in the Middle East. After posting a résumé, applicants would wait for an email or call from KBR recruiters asking them to come to a hotel in Sarajevo for interviews. Those who passed the interviews and received a job offer then waited for KBR to arrange a U.S. visa and flight to Houston where they underwent medical tests and received several weeks of training at KBR’s Greenspoint Mall deployment center alongside U.S. recruits. Once this was complete new hires were flown to Iraq, Kuwait, or Afghanistan.
Greenspoint Mall and its surrounding environs has a reputation for being rundown and violent, having suffered the fate of many other suburban malls in the U.S. in recent decades. One news story about KBR’s American employees put it this way: “Dimly lit and often eerily vacant, Greenspoint isn’t an ideal place to spend one’s last weeks before going off to war. The mall can’t shake its old nickname—‘Gunspoint’—it took on after a spate of violent crimes in the mid-1990s. A few days after Thanksgiving 2007, as the holiday shopping season began, Greenspoint was evacuated after a murder-suicide at the Body Luxuries lingerie store.”15 Several Bosnian KBR employees had similar impressions of the area. Elvis sarcastically recalls: “It was such a safe area [the mall] that they actually had to put a police station in it. That weekend as I arrived they shot the cop. … The place is eerie. Between six in the morning and four in the afternoon there is not a soul alive.” Another individual recounted an attempted mugging as he walked from a nearby hotel to KBR’s deployment facility in the shuttered Montgomery Ward department store. Despite this, others enjoyed their time in Houston. Fedja remembers that the large number of recruits from Tuzla made the deployment process feel “like on a school camp … 70 per cent of the people I knew there.” For Sanja, the deployment center is where she met Laura, a KBR (p.100) recruit from Houston, “one of the best people I have ever met in my life. I can call her my best friend.”
As KBR expanded its recruiting in Bosnia during the 2000s, more and more of those it hired had no prior experience working with the company or other military contractors. This situation was even more common with the second wave of hires stimulated by the LOGCAP IV contract, which awarded Fluor and Dyn-Corp support responsibilities for Afghanistan. One consequence of this shift is that websites and online forums have become increasingly important exchanges for information, whether rumors about employment opportunities, discussions of working conditions with different companies, or suggestions for navigating the recruiting process. The most popular of these websites, slobodni.net, hosts a dedicated, moderated forum titled “LOGCAP Poslovi” (LOGCAP Jobs). Threads and posts within this forum range widely. One can find a copy of DynCorp’s test to determine English-language proficiency (along with an answer key); information about technical exams for those applying for electrician or plumbing positions; rates and qualifications for sudski tumači (court interpreters) in Tuzla who can provide official translations of police reports required for background checks; updates on pay scales for specific positions and projects; discussions of the conditions that cause one to fail health exams (high blood pressure and bad teeth are the most common culprits); memorials for compatriots who have died while working in Iraq and Afghanistan; and detailed debates about company policies, such DynCorp’s decision to offer Asian contracts to Bosnian applicants. This last topic is the subject of a separate thread that has generated nearly 100 posts, which have been viewed more than 12,000 times. These numbers are dwarfed by the general threads for KBR, Flour, and DynCorp, which combined have more than 22,000 posts that were viewed more than 3 million times between late 2009, when LOGCAP Poslovi was established, and July 2017.
Web portals that cover local news are other key sites for information. A Lukavac-based portal, sodalive.ba, for instance, has published dozens of articles on recruiting events in Tuzla, life on military bases as a contractor, and the effect that this phenomenon has had upon economic and social relations in region over the past decade, with headlines such as “Recruiters for Fluor Have Arrived in Tuzla” (February 6, 2017), “Lukavac Residents’ Search for a Better Life Leads to Afghanistan” (January 31, 2012), and “Youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina—Afghanistan or a Luxury Cruise Ship?” (March 11, 2013).16 This last article highlights the disillusionment of youth in Bosnia, who are increasingly desperate to leave the country due to high unemployment, low pay and the political situation, comparing the experiences of those who choose to work as waiters or hospitality staff on cruise ships and those who sign on with Fluor or DynCorp in Afghanistan. The article struck a nerve among readers, generating nearly fifty comments, (p.101) most of them about work and life in Afghanistan. For several years sodalive.ba was edited by a former KBR employee from Lukavac who worked for more than a decade with the company starting in 1996. In 2016 he again left Lukavac to work for a U.S. PMC that has several logistics contracts to support operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In addition to websites, hotels loom large as significant spaces in nearly every account. From the Holiday Inn at Sarajevo to the Marriott and the Wyndham in Greenspoint, and from the Mövenpick and the Grand in Dubai to the Le Meridien in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Bosnians have circulated through different networks of hotels which define, in part, distinct recruiting processes and deployment pathways developed by each military contracting firm. Indeed, by the end of my interviews in Bosnia I found that I could reliably identify the company people worked for, as well as period of employment, just by the list of hotels—and activities that took place at them—that they mentioned in their stories. Hotels, in other words, have constituted critical infrastructural nodes in the accumulation of military labor from the Balkans, giving them a geopolitical and geo-economic significance that has not been adequately appreciated to date.17
Hotels serve a variety of functions. First, and most significantly, all three LOG-CAP prime contractors (KBR, Fluor, and DynCorp) use them as bases for recruiting in the Balkans. Rather than establish permanent offices in the region, the companies rent out blocks of hotel rooms or conference spaces that serve as temporary recruiting centers. KBR alternated between two hotels in Sarajevo: the Hollywood, located next to the airport and the headquarters of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission, and the downtown Holiday Inn, made famous as the home of international media covering the siege of the city in the early 1990s.18 Fluor and DynCorp use Hotel Tuzla in downtown Tuzla, which has the advantage of putting them at the epicenter of the country’s military labor pool.
Hotels also operate as sites for predeployment training and as waystations while waiting for necessary paperwork. One KBR employee, Rena, recalls a cohort of recruits before hers waiting for transit visas to Dubai for three months at the Marriott in Houston. The cause of this delay was temporary travel restrictions the UAE put upon people from the Balkans following a spectacular jewelry heist by the infamous Balkans-based “Pink Panthers” gang in 2007.19 To save money and speed up the deployment process to Afghanistan, both Fluor and DynCorp have rejected KBR’s strategy of sending workers to the U.S., instead flying them to Dubai for health exams and abbreviated training courses held at hotels like the Mövenpick or Grand (DynCorp), or bringing in staff to conduct training at the Hotel Tuzla before deployment (Fluor). In addition to saving money, this indicates the lower status that Bosnian hires have experienced while working for the two companies, who unlike KBR have drawn a clear line dividing American from (p.102) non-American direct hires. For its Ebola support mission in West Africa, and more recent contracts to provide logistics support for SOF forces and drone operations in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, Fluor has moved its training program to hotels in Dubai, where workers also wait for necessary visas before flying to Niger, Uganda, Cameroon, and Somalia.
Finally, hotels figure prominently as rest and recreation sites. As part of its benefits package, KBR offered employees in CENTCOM three paid vacations a year under its LOGCAP III contract, including covering travel costs between military bases and home. This policy has been followed by Fluor and DynCorp—though in reduced form by the latter which offers two vacations a year, with travel expenses covered only for the first. For those working in difficult warzone conditions, a night or two layover in Dubai, Istanbul, or Tashkent presents an opportunity for shopping, entertainment, or just lounging at the hotel’s pool. Shopping is especially popular for those routed through Dubai, who load up on goods at the malls to bring back as gifts for family and friends. Elvis, who worked in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, remembers KBR using a two hotel system in Tashkent, which was the main hub for transit to and from the country at the time: “It was the Sheraton and Le Meridian. One was for [people going] in, the other was for [people going] out. They didn’t want these two groups of people mixing.” According to Elvis, Le Meridian, the outbound hotel, took full advantage of regular flights of workers leaving Afghanistan with money to burn and looking to “blow off steam.” “The Le Meridian was probably the most expensive hotel on the face of the planet at the time. They were charging six bucks for a can of Heineken … Breakfast was 15 dollars. Hookers were everywhere. Shit, every night there was like a platoon of them. Of course suckers were falling in love, spending their money, drinking their money, and going back to Afghanistan broke, dying.” Here the contrast with Filipinos employed by subcontractors is instructive. These companies do not offer vacations—paid or unpaid—forcing workers to stay on bases without trips home for the length of their contract, often two or more years. Additionally, while subcontractors are obligated to pay for flights to and from home, they do not cover accommodation during layovers, forcing workers to sleep in the airports.
As noted above, the transition from LOGCAP III to LOGCAP IV represents a significant dividing line for Bosnian workers, with the Pentagon pushing prime contractors to lower salaries for direct hires from Southeast Europe. Even KBR lowered its pay scale for new Bosnian recruits to Iraq and Kuwait. Lena, who was hired in late 2008, remembers: “They told us in the middle of the processing [in Houston] that they were going to cut our pay. People started to scream and yell.” This led the company to delay implementation of this decision until the group after hers. KBR lost Afghanistan to Fluor and DynCorp under the new contract, (p.103) and the Iraq War was winding down, so its recruiting efforts dropped off substantially at this point. Far more people have been affected by the differential pay policies implemented by Fluor and DynCorp, which make a distinction between American, West European (primarily Britons), East European, and Asian direct hires.
DynCorp’s decision to offer both European and Asian contracts to Bosnian workers beginning in 2010 has been especially contentious. One issue, obviously, is the dramatic difference in pay, with Asian contacts paying $12,000 to $18,000 a year and workers performing the same jobs under a European contract typically earning three times this amount. What angers people the most, however, are the false promises made by local recruiters—that is, Bosnians hired by DynCorp to run recruitment in the country, under the supervision of an American manager—that applicants who signed an Asian contract could easily switch over to European positions and pay when they arrived in Afghanistan. In one case a local recruiter was beaten by family members of a worker who found out he had been duped. Several DynCorp employees told me they were convinced that local recruiters’ pay was linked to the number of people they could convince to sign Asian contracts, given the amount of money the company could save in labor costs.
The Logistics of Assembling a Transnational Workforce
While the concept of logistics originates with the supply of military operations, it has taken on wider connotations over the past century. As Edna Bonacich and Jake Wilson observe, “Its meaning has been expanded to refer to the management of the entire supply chain, encompassing design and ordering, production, transportation and warehousing, sales, redesign and reordering. This entire cycle of production and distribution is now viewed as a single integrated unit that requires its own specialists for analysis and implementation.”20 Thus from a commercial standpoint logistics is concerned with the circulation of commodities, getting goods—be they sneakers, flat screen TVs, or cars—from one place to another. With the advent of global supply chains this is an incredibly complex and diffuse process, involving a “network of infrastructures, technologies, spaces, workers and violence that makes the circulation of stuff possible.”21 This is what Deborah Cowen means when she refers to the production of commodities today as occurring “across logistics space rather than in a singular place.”22
This focus on the logistics of commodity production and distribution is insightful, but I want to argue for a broader consideration of logistics. One that is (p.104) attendant to both goods and people. For logistics does not just underpin the transnational circulation of goods, but—increasingly—labor as well. Consider the cargo ships that haul goods across the oceans. As the shipping industry globalized in recent decades national carriers have been displaced by companies that register ships under a flag of convenience in countries like Panama and Liberia. This allows them to avoid stricter regulations, especially concerning labor costs and standards, imposed by traditional shipping centers like Britain and Greece. Ship owners also began outsourcing operations to other firms that are responsible for assembling crews that now often resemble a veritable United Nations of labor.23 As with U.S. military logistics workers, Filipinos constitute one of the largest contingents of seafarers, and the sites, processes, and actors involved in recruiting labor for both industries are remarkably similar, though the POEA does separate out land-and sea-based recruitment and employers for administrative purposes.
Transoceanic shipping, in short, is now highly dependent on the acquisition of a global workforce. It is just one of many economic sectors; others that draw extensively on transnational labor supply chains to staff their workforces include cruise ship operators, transoceanic fishing fleets, logistics firms supporting humanitarian and peacekeeping operations around the world, and large corporations that dominate worldwide oil, gas, and mineral extraction. To these industries can be added the massive labor import-export regime between wealthy Gulf petro-states and poor Asian labor-exporting countries. All together this admittedly partial accounting of the phenomenon represents millions of people circulating through different, but frequently overlapping, transnational labor supply chains.
The point I want to make here is that for these industries and countries, as with military contractors, assembling a global workforce is itself a complex undertaking, one populated by its own logistics spaces and labor, including recruiting agencies, websites, transportation companies, hotels, government bureaucrats, and labor brokers. While there is a great deal of excellent research concerning those who perform logistics labor for commodity production and distribution—such as driving trucks, sorting and packaging goods at warehouses, and unloading cargo at ports—to date the logistical infrastructures and labors involved in assembling large-scale global workforces have not attracted the attention of those who study logistics. This is an oversight, I believe. Certainly, when it comes to the global labor system that the U.S. depends on to maintain its overseas military empire, both the Serka employee who serves food at a DFAC at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and the Manila recruiting agency that processed her, are equally important parts of the story.
(1.) This definition of migration infrastructures comes from Xiang and Lindquist 2014, 122. For more on the concept of “migration infrastructures”—particularly in Asia—see Lin et al. 2017; Hirsh 2017; Lindquist 2017.
(p.211) (2.) The prominent role played by recruiting agencies, or labor brokers, is not unique to the Philippines. Indeed labor brokers are a critical—perhaps the critical—node of migration infrastructure for labor-exporting and-importing states in Asia, a fact that has generated increased scholarly attention in recent years. For more on this, see Lindquist, Xiang, and Yeoh 2012; Molland 2012; Kern and Muller-Boker, 2015; Lindquist 2012, 2015, 2017.
(7.) It is worth noting that following the imposition of travel bans in 2004, Serka evolved toward a body shop, expanding its services for the military in Iraq from food service to ice plant operations, water purification treatment, laundry services, and administrative support.
(14.) This said, a handful of people I interviewed—such as Rena and Srdjan—were hired by other military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan during this period.
(17.) Claudio Minca and Chin-Ee Ong (2016) provide an interesting examination of an earlier example of the use of hotels in Amsterdam to facilitate the transnational movement of labor. The broader observation about the underexamined geo-economic and geopolitical significance of hotels comes from Lisa Smirl’s (2015) work on the spaces of aid, and from Sara Fregonese and Adam Ramadan’s (2015) call for more focus on the geopolitics of hotels.
(19.) For an account of the robbery, see Agarib 2015. One of the most notorious gangs in the world, the Pink Panthers are estimated to have made off with $500 million in jewelry over the years. Their exploits were the subject of the 2013 documentary film Smash & Grab directed by Havana Marking. For more on the gang see, Simon 2014.