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Empire's LaborThe Global Army That Supports U.S. Wars$

Adam Moore

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781501742170

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501742170.001.0001

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(p.131) 8 Activism
Empire's Labor

Adam Moore

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyzes the hidden dynamics of labor activism on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. It focuses on three strategies: protests, strikes, and “jumping” from one company to another. This chapter describes the motivations of workers who engage in these actions, as well as the risks, and the coercive measures employed by companies to suppress them. The first action of foreign workers in the event of labor struggles is a “don't rock the boat” approach. That is, keep one's head down and continue to work without complaining or trying to change conditions. A second option is to return home. The problem is that this is a road to economic ruin if one paid exorbitant recruiting fees and still owes money to loan sharks, as many workers do. Finally, workers can decide to engage in labor activism. The rest of the chapter examines when, why, and to what effect workers choose labor activism.

Keywords:   labor activism, Iraq, Afghanistan, protests, strikes, economic ruin, military base

We were all thinking the same, so in the evening we talked and agreed that we would not go to work in the morning. … We called a meeting. One or two men went room by room. The guy who led it was a former OFW, so he had lots of experience. So he went room by room and convinced people. When he came in he said, “Tomorrow we will do something about the salary. Please join us. It won’t take long.”


Third country nationals have a precarious and liminal status on U.S. military bases in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In contrast to American contractors, they have little recourse to remedies through the U.S. legal system when subject to labor abuses, especially when their employers are also foreign firms, as most military subcontractors are. And unlike local laborers who can appeal to host countries for help, they have few external political and social relationships that can be mobilized to advocate for better wages or working conditions. Moreover, military bases are essentially closed company towns where all workers are at-will employees that can be fired and deported by the military or contracting companies for any reason. In many cases being deported results in being “blacklisted” by the military from working again on its bases.

Given this context, U.S. bases in warzones are one of the last places one would expect to find a ferment of labor activism. This impression is buttressed by the fact that few news stories discuss labor strikes or protests on bases. In part this is a product of restrictions governing where reporters can go and who they can talk with. But it also reflects a widespread narrative that portrays TCNs—especially those from South and Southeast Asia—as hapless victims with little agency of their own. One notable exception to the lack of reporting on labor activism is the work of Sarah Stillman, whose excellent 2011 New Yorker article, “The Invisible Army,” describes a massive 2010 riot by PPI workers at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. Angered by a shortage of food at the company DFAC, more than 1,000 workers, mainly from India and Nepal, ransacked their mancamp, “smashing (p.132) windows, hurling stones, destroying computers, raiding company files, and battering the entrance” after supervisors refused to provide more rice. Eventually U.S. military police and Ugandan security guards were called into the camp to quell the riot. Several weeks later GCC employees in Baghdad staged their own protest, “pelting their bosses with stones and accusing the company of failing to pay them their proper wages.”1

As Stillman’s article hints at, protests and strikes have in fact not been uncommon on bases in warzones. Nor are these the only forms of labor activism. More common, I am told, is a practice that workers refer to as “jumping,” which involves surreptitiously transferring from one company to another in search of better pay or working conditions. As I argue below, this is a strategy that is no less risky than mass protests or strikes.

Viewed in a broader context, these labor struggles can be situated within a long history of such activities at the myriad of overseas U.S. military projects and bases. Julie Greene describes repeated strikes, riots, and attempts to organize unions on the part of the multinational workforce the military enrolled to construct the Panama Canal in the early 1900s—as well as various coercive measures introduced to repress these activities.2 Labor unrest also plagued contractors in Vietnam. In 1966 roughly 16,000 RMK-BRJ workers at multiple bases struck for better wages.3 That same year 4,300 Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese laborers for RMK-BRJ at Cam Ranh Bay military base went on strike in protest of onerous work rules.4 And in late 1967 some 2,000 Koreans working for Vinnell Corporation at Cam Ranh Bay protested a shortage of rice and the quality of food they were being fed. When a company manager shot three Koreans, the protests turned into a multiday riot, with workers smashing bulldozers and trucks into buildings.5 U.S. bases in the Philippines were a regular target for labor activists prior to their closure in the 1990s. In 1986 more than 22,000 Filipino workers struck at Clark Air Base, Subic Bay naval facility, and six smaller bases. Seeking pay raises and increased severance benefits they blockaded entrances with logs, rocks, and scrap metal for nearly two weeks, preventing service members from entering or leaving the bases.6 More recently, in 2013 hundreds of Djiboutian laborers conducted more than a month of protests and strikes against planned workforce cuts by KBR at Camp Lemonnier, forcing troops to “man the chow line” and perform other logistics duties.7

There are several factors that make labor activism by foreign workers in warzones distinct from cases like the Panama Canal, Djibouti, and the Philippines. One is that in the latter local labor laws govern—to greater and lesser degrees depending on SOFAs and other bilateral agreements—hiring and firing procedures, wages, rights to unionize or strike, and working conditions. Foreign workers have no such legal frameworks that they can effectively appeal to. Another is (p.133) that as transnational labor migrants TCNs are a captive labor pool whose alternative in-county work options are essentially nonexistent. Being forced to return home is the most likely outcome if they leave, or are terminated from, employment on a base.

Perhaps the most significant difference involves the political and social dynamics of protests and strikes. In countries that host large, long-term U.S. bases the military is highly reliant on local labor to provide logistics support. This dependence, Amy Austin Holmes argues in her analysis of domestic social unrest connected to military bases located in Germany and Turkey, means that local workers possess a degree of “structural power.” By this she means the ability to use strikes and other forms of labor unrest to further various economic and political goals, ranging from obtaining wage increases and greater job security for workers to pressuring the host government to end the U.S. military’s presence. Holmes’s research demonstrates that the ability to mobilize structural power is not just a matter of labor dependence; it is also shaped by a triadic relationship between the military, local labor, and the host nation. Thus in responding to strikes and protests the military by necessity has to take into account how its actions will be received by the host society and its political elites.8 Such considerations are absent in the case of TCN labor activism in the Middle East and Afghanistan, greatly attenuating the structural power that these workers possess. Put another way, the use of foreign workers in warzones produces a relatively high degree of “internal containment” of labor relations. This, as noted in chapter 7, is a desired feature of labor offshoring, which facilitates the military’s goal of developing more flexible and modular logistical support regimes.

I do not wish to imply that labor struggles on these bases unfold as if trapped in a hermetically sealed container. A certain amount of political leakage is inevitable. In May 2005, for instance, some 300 Filipino employees of PPI went on strike at Taji Air Base (also known as Camp Cooke at the time). They were later joined by 500 laborers from India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The strikers accused PPI of violating contract language concerning working conditions and hours, falling three months late on pay, and refusing to provide cooks in the company mancamp that would prepare national dishes such as adobo chicken. In response PPI threatened to immediately fire the agitators and send them back home on chartered flights. When word of the labor dispute was picked up by Philippine diplomats in Iraq, the government dispatched its chargé d’affaires, Ricardo Endaya, to mediate talks between PPI and the workers. These talks ended in a quick settlement. Endaya also investigated allegations of systemic labor abuses by First Kuwaiti in 2004 and 2005—there were “simultaneous complaints at multiple camps” he recollects—but the company refused to meet with him to discuss remedies. During his time in Iraq, Endaya continually prodded U.S. officials and (p.134) his superiors to more aggressively investigate First Kuwaiti’s labor practices, though to little effect.9

This chapter explores the hidden phenomenon of labor activism on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foreign workers on these bases have three choices when it come to their situation. The first, and safest, is a “don’t rock the boat” approach. That is, keep one’s head down and continue to work without complaining or trying to change conditions. A second option is to return home. The problem is that this is a road to economic ruin if one paid exorbitant recruiting fees and still owes money to loan sharks, as many workers do. Finally, workers can decide to engage in labor activism—either collective or individual—aware of the risks that this entails. In the rest of the chapter I examine when, why, and to what effect workers choose this latter option. I also discuss contracting companies’ strategies to suppress workers’ efforts, and the military’s ambiguous position in relation to these struggles.

Protests and Strikes

In 2004 strikes unfolded across several major bases in northern Iraq, beginning at Diamondback and Marez in Mosul, and then spreading to Q-West and Tal Afar. Instigated by Filipinos working for Serka, which held DFAC contracts for the bases, these actions were one of the earliest examples of large-scale labor activism in Iraq. They were also successful, leading to significant pay increases for strikers at all four bases. I first heard of the strikes from Daniel, a gregarious former Serka employee who was one of the first people I met in the Philippines. At the end of the interview I was left with several questions, the answers to which only started to come into focus as I talked with other participants in these strikes. Why were the majority of Serka’s Filipino workers motivated to take action despite the obvious risks? How did the process unfold? And what were the circumstances that contributed to a favorable outcome for participants?

More than a decade after the strikes occurred Daniel still relished describing the events and displayed evident pride in what he and his fellow workers accomplished. Serka’s Filipino employees had two main complaints with their status. First, they were angered by the gross discrepancy between contracts signed in the Philippines and pay and working conditions in Iraq. As mentioned in chapter 7, Serka’s contracts specified an eight-hour a day work schedule, with one day off each week. When people arrived in Iraq they were told that standard shifts were actually twelve hours, with no days off. And despite the extra thirty-six hours a week they were working, they would receive no additional pay. In addition to this blatant wage theft, many workers found themselves paid far less than promised. (p.135) Anne, for instance, was promised a salary of $600/month, but was paid only $300. Other Serka employees also mentioned working for salaries far less than promised. Their accounts are bolstered by a 2006 Army investigation into Serka that found evidence that this practice continued after the travel ban drove recruiting underground.10

What Filipinos really resented, however, was the fact that Serka’s Turkish employees were being paid much more for doing the same work. Manny recalls, “A Turkish worker only go clean the toilet but his salary is $1,000 [a month]. A Filipino that got the same [salary] work on the computer. For example, when I was a driver my salary was $1,000. My helper, Turkish, was $1,300 to $1,400 … ​Turkish workers in the kitchen would get twice as much [as Filipino kitchen workers]. … ​We felt insulted by the Turkish salaries compared to ours.” Moreover, Filipinos felt that the company’s Turkish employees treated them shabbily, even though they were not as qualified. Daniel remembers, “We felt disrespected by the Turkish workers. [They] didn’t go to school. They didn’t know how to write, how to read. And they didn’t know English … ​But they were very full of themselves.” Serka is a Turkish company with a history of providing logistics support for U.S. military bases in Turkey going back to the 1960s. Therefore the fact that it treated its compatriot workforce better than its Filipino employees makes sense, to a degree. In this, in fact, its practices resembled Fluor’s and DynCorp’s tiered distinctions between American, European, and Asian workers in Afghanistan a few years later. But Filipinos I talked with didn’t see it this way. While the racialized hierarchy between American workers and TCNs is generally internalized and accepted by Filipinos—especially if the latter work for a subcontracting company—they objected to the assumption that Serka’s Turkish employees should have a higher status.

Daniel suggests this perspective was fueled by discussions with Filipino-American soldiers, who said to him and others, “You guys are getting screwed.” In his telling these conversations planted the seed for organizing against the company. Rodrigo, one of his coworkers at Marez, says that the first step was drafting a petition that was delivered to Serka and KBR management. “They drafted a letter that said, ‘We’re asking for [an] increase. We know how dangerous the job is. You know how dangerous the situation is which makes our jobs dangerous as well. Here are the list of the names who are demanding this and they signed them. If you cannot give this to us, send us home.’” According to Rodrigo, approximately half of Serka’s Filipino workforce on the base signed the petition. The following day they stayed in their barracks instead of reporting for work at the DFAC. Almost immediately the base mayor called a meeting with Serka, KBR, and strike leaders. According to Daniel, Rodrigo, and Anne, both KBR and the military backed their demands, with KBR telling Serka’s managers, “Don’t make this get (p.136) any worse, fix it.” Once people heard this, they knew they had won. Three weeks later Serka doubled the salary for all of its Filipino workers on the base, even those who did not participate in the strike.

In short order strikes spread to other bases in northern Iraq. The last base to be organized was Tal Afar. Manny, who worked there, was originally reluctant to join the strike: “I was scared. On the one hand I wanted my salary to be increased. On the other I was scared I would be sent home. The one consolation I had was that if I got fired everyone would get fired.” When I asked if others felt this way he said: “Yeah, many. They were scared too. But we were [also] afraid we would be teased if we didn’t [go along]. … ​Also, we heard about strikes in other camps. We heard that other camps were able to negotiate their salary, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we try?’ Hearing about it [the other strikes] the leaders were confident that it [a strike] would work.” In the end Manny and most of Serka’s non-Turkish workforce at Tal Afar, which included some Indian and Egyptian workers, joined the strike.

Several factors contributed to the success of these strikes. As mentioned above, the perception of injustice concerning Serka’s differential treatment of Turkish and non-Turkish employees created a shared set of grievances (“we were all thinking the same”) that helped unite its Filipino workers against the company. In addition to this, it is clear that those with previous experience working abroad, such as Daniel and the leaders of the strike at Tal Afar, played an important role in mobilizing people. Also relevant is the power of demonstration effects. According to Manny, success at the bases in Mosul emboldened both leaders and reluctant followers like himself to undertake their own strikes. Perhaps most important was the fact that KBR and military officials sided with Serka’s Filipino workers, which foreclosed the possibility of punitive actions against participants by the company.

This support has to be understood in relation to the specific dynamics at play. It is not immaterial, for instance, that Filipinos constituted the vast majority of Serka’s food service workers at the time. Without their labor the company lacked the manpower to fulfill its contractual obligations. Moreover, the military places great emphasis on dining operations in warzones, believing that plentiful and high-quality food is critical for maintaining morale. Food service is also much more time sensitive than other logistical support activities like construction, maintenance, and transportation. Truck convoys can be delayed for days with little disruption to operations, but if troops miss a meal because the DFAC is shut down all hell breaks loose. And due to strict sanitation rules and procedures, it is difficult for companies to rapidly replace striking food service staff with untrained workers. Combined, the constant rhythm of food service and the critical mass of Filipino DFAC workers who went along with the strike meant that strikers had a (p.137) significant degree of leverage. Therefore from the perspective of KBR and the military the quickest way to resolve the problem of interrupted food service was to order Serka to “fix” the issue by meeting its workers’ demands.

In response to the strikes, Serka made several labor management changes. First, it appears to have phased out hiring Turkish workers, whose elevated status generated so much resentment from Filipinos. Second, the company became more aggressive in punishing employees who tried to organize protests or strikes. As we saw in chapter 7, Anne was deported in 2006 for protesting new restrictions on the use of cell phones and freedom of movement around her base without escorts. A critical difference here was that these restrictions were imposed by the military, so when Anne protested the changes she received no outside support. But rather than explain the situation for Anne and other protesters, Serka took this as an opportunity to remove unwanted agitators from its workforce. Another Serka employee, Angelo, recalls protests and strikes over low wages by Indian and Bangladeshi workers in 2006. Initially the company agreed to increase their $300/month salaries by $50. But when dozens of workers continued to complain about this small increase in pay, Serka rounded up the leaders and sent them home.

The key change introduced by Serka was diversification of its workforce by nationality. According to Daniel, “In the beginning it was mostly Filipinos and Turkish, but after the strikes Indians and Nepali came in.” These South Asian workers, he claims, cost less money and were more docile. This shift in workforce composition, which I call the “Tower of Babel strategy,” was deliberate according to those I talked with. The logic behind diversifying one’s workforce is that it is harder to organize and mobilize support for mass action across national lines. Articulating shared goals or strategies, for example, is more difficult with a multinational workforce, especially given the fact that most South Asian workers have little to no knowledge of English. Moreover, levels of solidarity and trust across national lines are much lower than within. For example, when I asked Angelo why he and other Filipinos refused to join the strike by Serka’s Indian and Bangladeshi employees he replied, “If you complained about salary you could get fired” and “it was their own strike.” Serka played up these tensions by paying different wages based on nationality. Filipinos on Angelo’s base were paid double the company’s South Asian workers, for instance. More importantly, a heterogeneous workforce allowed Serka—and other companies that pursued this strategy—to more effectively marginalize labor activism, especially if it remained largely confined along national lines. When a DFAC workforce is constituted by a mix of Nepalese, Indians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, and Turks, protests or work stoppages by one or two of these groups can be more easily absorbed without dramatically affecting operations. According to Angelo, this was why the 2006 strikes met with limited success. Even though a significant portion of both Indian and Bangladeshi (p.138) workers participated, they still represented a fraction of DFAC workers, which decreased their bargaining leverage. Another Serka employee, Christian, recalls a 2009 strike by fifteen Bangladeshi DFAC employees. Rather than negotiate with this small contingent of disgruntled workers the company immediately sent them home, with little visible effect on food service.

Filipinos who worked for other subcontractors, including the military’s largest body shops in Iraq, PPI, GCC, and Kulak, suggest that this approach to workforce composition, and aggressive moves to identify and deport labor activists, quickly became widespread strategies for suppressing mass protests and strikes. Despite this, interviews reveal that labor disruptions continued to occur at bases across the country. One PPI employee who was at Camp Bucca in 2006 and 2007 recalls a large work stoppage where “the majority” of the company’s employees, “people from India, Philippines, Nepal,” refused to work for two days in protest of small salaries and lack of overtime pay. Built in the desert wastes northwest of Iraq’s main port, Umm Qasr, Bucca was the U.S. military’s largest detention facility in the country, holding 26,000 Iraqi prisoners at the peak of its operations.11 After promising a small salary bump, PPI managers convinced everyone to return to work. A week later the company terminated eight employees—six of them Filipino—that it identified as the strike leaders.

Another person I talked with, Chris, remembers a labor protest in early May 2005 staged by approximately 500 Filipino GCC employees at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. Unlike the cases discussed above this one concerned food. Specifically, the fact that the company dining hall was staffed with Indian cooks who refused to accommodate their requests for noncurry dishes. “They fed us with curry that looked like shit. There were so many people [that] got stressed because of that.” After complaints to company managers went nowhere, Chris and the rest of GCC’s Filipino contingent turned to the military for help. “We went to the staging area, the military staging area and said, ‘We refuse to work.’ One officer came up and said, ‘What is the problem with your company? I will call your company [managers].’ ‘Sir, our problem is food, not work. Food, only food.’ The military gave us some MREs and water and we went back to work. … ​ What KBR did, [is] they talked to the [GCC] management to fix the problem. They provided us food accommodation, Filipino food.”

This is an instructive example of labor activism for a couple of reasons. One is that it illustrates another issue—the type, quantity, or quality of company-provided food—that frequently motivated workers to protest or strike. Several people discussed protests that centered on food occurring with other subcontractors during the first few years of operations in Iraq, an unintended consequence, perhaps, of hiring nationally heterogeneous workforces. Eventually, at most bases the largest subcontracting firms began providing a range of food options in their (p.139) mancamps to accommodate the tastes of workers from different countries. However, as Sarah Stillman’s reporting discussed above indicates, food complaints remained a key precipitant of protests and strikes throughout the occupation of Iraq. Another common driver of labor activism concerns salary arrears. PPI, for example, was notorious for its frequent delays, with people I talked with going up to four months in a row without pay. PPI’s salary arrears was one issue, in particular, that had the power to unite all workers, no matter their nationality, in protest.

The other significant detail about the GCC protest Chris recounted is that workers took their complaints directly to military officials after receiving no response from company managers. This too was not uncommon. Enrolling the military in labor disputes could take different forms, from large protests like the one described by Chris to discussing problems with friends or acquaintances in the military, as was the case with Daniel, who credits Filipino-American soldiers with convincing him and others at Marez to organize the first strike against Serka. Daniel was not alone in thinking that the military was more responsive than company managers and KBR supervisors. In 2004 a number of PPI workers at Balad began agitating for better food and housing accommodations, eventually formulating a list of demands. When I asked Isko, who worked there at the time, whether they presented their demands to their PPI or KBR managers he responded, “Not the mangers. They gave it to the MPs [military police]. Because the MPs had the power to change the rules or address the problem. Even if you complained to the managers there was nothing much that they would do. That’s why you went to the MPs.”

We should not place too much stock in these accounts of military support for labor activism. For one, most of the examples people told me about involved interventions by individual soldiers that had personal connections with workers, often developed through shared activities (church and basketball being two of the most common) or heritage in the case of Filipino-American soldiers. Moreover, it would be inaccurate to say that the military as an institution has a pro-labor disposition on its bases. Workers from Bosnia and the Philippines told me they could not recall a single case of military officials intervening to block the deportation of labor activists by either prime contractors or subcontractors. Additionally, the military’s reaction to labor abuses on its bases over the past two decades has consistently been reactive rather than proactive, demonstrating—as discussed in chapter 7—much reluctance in providing substantive, systemic oversight. Nonetheless, that workers often directed their complaints to the military, viewing this as the most promising avenue for remedies, is revealing about the state of labor relations on bases.

Interviews and news accounts suggest that large-scale protests and strikes may be less prevalent in Afghanistan than Iraq. Why exactly this is the case is unclear, (p.140) though several possible reasons come to mind. First, several people who have worked in both countries suggest that subcontractor salaries in Afghanistan are typically higher than Iraq. In Afghanistan, PPI, for instance, paid monthly salaries ranging from $1,200 to $1,400, approximately double what people earned in Iraq. Additionally, LOGCAP prime contractors in Afghanistan—DynCorp in particular—appear to be directly employing a greater percentage of their logistics workforce, hiring Filipinos, Kenyans, Indians, and Bosnians on “Asian” contracts. Not only do workers with these contracts usually earn more than those employed by subcontractors, their food and accommodation also tends to be of a higher standard. It is also possible that subcontractors have become more effective in surveilling and disciplining workers that engage in labor activism.

Though less prevalent, protests and strikes still take place in Afghanistan. One of the more remarkable examples was relayed to me by Rick, who works as a firefighter at KAF. One of the two main logistics hubs in the country (Bagram is the other), KAF’s massive airfield plays a critical role in ferrying equipment and personnel into and within Afghanistan. In 2007 a Canadian company, ATCO Frontec, was awarded several contracts to provide support services at KAF, including fire and crash rescue. One of the countries it turned to for its labor needs was the Philippines. The company paid Rick and other Filipino firefighters $1,000 month, more than he previously earned working at Clark International Airport in the Philippines, but a pittance for such highly skilled and important work in a warzone. In 2009 ATCO Frontec’s entire Filipino contingent began demanding salary raises. “We decided if they don’t increase our salary we will go home,” recalls Rick. “We were eighteen people at that time. We wrote a letter to the company that every year we want a raise to our salary … ​They don’t answer our letter. Four letters we sent to them, nobody answered us. … ​We talked to our fire chief, ‘How about the letters we sent to the company?’ ‘Nobody answered,’ he said.” After months of being ignored, they decided to escalate matters when the project manager returned from a visit to company headquarters in Calgary.


  • We packed all of our things, packed our bags … ​We told the fire chief that at 5:00 we will stop working. So the fire chief called the project manager, “We got a problem here. People don’t want to work. It’s 5:00 so you have to come here and make a decision about these people. There are eighteen Filipinos going home if you don’t answer and attend [to] their grievances.” The project manager came. “This is your new contract,” he told us. We read it. It was the same contract. We told him, “We will never sign this. We will leave.” We went out and the project manager called us back. “What do you want?” “A (p.141) salary increase.” “How much do you want?” “Double our salary.” “OK,” he said, because he saw that we were ready to leave and then the category of the airport will go down. This will be a big problem for the company.
  • ME:

  • What do you mean by “category of the airport”?
  • RICK:

  • That’s civil aviation policy. It’s [KAF’s] supposed to be a 9, it will go to 7 [if we walk out]. The company will be fined a million dollars an hour. Because this will be reported to the tower, the Base Operation Center.
  • Rick is referring here to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s Rescue and Fire Fighting Service (RFFS) requirements. Based on a 10-point scale these categories represent assessments of an airport’s firefighting and rescue capabilities. They also determine the size and type of aircraft that an airport is permitted to handle. Category 9 airports, for instance, are allowed to receive planes up to 250 feet in length, while category 7 airports are limited to planes that are less than 161 feet long.12 The largest military transport and refueling planes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, C-5 Galaxy, and KC-10 Extender, require category 9-or 8-rated airports. So too do the most popular civilian transport planes like Boeing’s 747/767/777 variants, and Airbus’s A330/340/350 series. A drop in KAF’s ICAO rating from 9 to 7—which Rick claims would have been the result of a decrease in the airfield’s firefighting contingent by eighteen workers—would have crippled logistical operations for southern Afghanistan. And ATCO Frontec would have borne responsibility for this ratings drop, a breach of contract that in turn would have resulted in large fines from the military.

    Eighteen firefighters banding together and instigating a dramatic work stoppage showdown with their project manager on the tarmac in Kandahar: it was a remarkable event, one that won Rick and his colleagues a significant pay raise from their employer. Their actions demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of logistics operations, military contracts, airport regulations, and bargaining leverage. More significantly, in my view, this threatened strike—as with all the other strikes and protests that Filipinos recounted to me—vividly illustrates the unwillingness of foreign workers to simply acquiesce to U.S. military contractors’ exploitative working conditions and pay. Despite the risks that this entails, they have often chosen instead to fight.


    More common than protests and strikes is another type of labor activism that workers refer to as jumping. Jumping, as mentioned above, is the practice of (p.142) covertly changing one’s employer on a military base. The most common reason that workers jump is the promise of a larger salary at the new company.

    Before going into the details of this phenomenon, it may be useful to explain why I consider jumping to be a form of labor activism. On the surface it may appear incongruous to lump it in with protests and strikes. The latter are visible (at least on military bases), mass actions aimed at subcontractors, prime contractors, and/or military officials. Their goal is to make known grievances concerning pay, food, working conditions, etc., and prod relevant authorities to remedy the situation. Jumping, in contrast, is done in secret. It is also an individual action—though one that usually requires the assistance of multiple people on a base to succeed. And it is not done with the collective aim of bettering workers’ status. Put in terms of Albert Hirschman’s famous Exit, Voice, and Loyalty treatise, protests and strikes represent “voice”—attempts by workers to repair or improve their relationship with employers through communication of grievances and desired redress—while jumping represents “exit”—an abandonment of the relationship.13

    Why then should jumping be viewed through the lens of labor activism? The primary reason is that it represents a challenge to military contractors’ power over their workforces, one perhaps even more fundamental than protests or strikes. This power derives from the fact that foreign workers on bases in warzones are a doubly captive labor pool. First, as noted above, they do not have alternative in-country work options if they are fired, rendering them more vulnerable than local laborers. Second, and more significantly, foreign laborers’ right to live and work on a military base is determined by their employer. This is because they are required to have a LOA that identifies them as “contractors authorized to accompany the Force.”14 Military contractors are responsible for registering their employees with a base’s “contracting officer,” who then issues a LOA for each worker. In addition to specifying one’s employer, LOAs also define rights and privileges on a base, such as whether or not someone is allowed to use MWR facilities, possess cell phones or computers, or move around a base without escorts. At any point in time, and for any reason, a company can inform the contracting officer that they are ending their relationship with an employee. This leads to the immediate revocation of one’s LOA, followed by deportation from the base as soon as can be arranged. Right to work, in short, is entirely dependent on the whims of one’s employer.

    This dependency bears a striking resemblance to the kafala, or sponsorship, system utilized by most countries in the Middle East. As with TCNs on military bases, migrant workers’ right to live and work in countries with kafala labor laws, including massive labor importing states like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, is controlled by their employer, or “sponsor.”15 Given this similarity, as (p.143) well as the Gulf provenance of many military subcontractors, labor abuses—such as confiscation of passports, wage theft, trafficking and excessive recruiting fees, substandard living quarters, and unsafe working conditions—on U.S. bases have tended to parallel those experienced by workers in Gulf states.

    Foreign workers successfully leaving their employers for better pay or working conditions with another company on a military base constitute a threat to this second aspect of labor captivity. This is especially the case when jumping becomes a widespread practice, which threatens companies’ ironfisted control over their employees. That military contractors—especially subcontractors, whose workers have the greatest motivation to jump—recognize this threat is evident by the fact that their contracts often explicitly forbid employees from jumping to another company, language that is sometimes accompanied by threats of large fines or penalties. Najlaa’s contracts, for example, stated that employees would be charged a $2,500 fee if they left to work for another company “before completion of one year of service.” The contract Kulak has its employees sign includes a “resignation” section that stipulates, “You are not allowed to leave Kulak Cons. Co. and work on any other company.” In response to an epidemic of jumping in 2003 and 2004, Serka revised its contracts with Filipino workers to include the following language forbidding workers from leaving the company: “You are not allowed to leave Serka Company and work for any other company part time or full time. If you wish to be released by Serka to another company you have to pay Serka Company the sum of $5,000 as the transfer fee” (bold and underline in original).16

    A second, corollary, reason that jumping should be considered an act of labor activism is that it is a strategy employed by workers to get out from under the thumb of employers, to improve their lot. Moreover, jumping carries similar risks as striking or protesting. In fact, jumping is arguably riskier as getting caught before successfully switching to another company almost always leads to termination and deportation, while not all participants in strikes and protests suffer these consequences.

    Despite the risks, jumping is widespread, at least according to Filipinos I interviewed. Isko claims that other PPI employees he flew into Iraq with tried to arrange work with a new company before they even settled in. “Even though they didn’t have their [ID] badges yet they were already looking to jump!” Danilo echoes this, claiming, “Most of us who could jump from PPI did.” When I asked him what type of work people looked for, he replied, “Administrative work, because it pays better. And also technical work like mechanic, [on] trucks or heavy equipment.” The most desirable companies to jump to, I was repeatedly told, are U.S.-based prime contractors, who pay more that subcontracting companies and offer better accommodations and base privileges. Not everyone follows this path, (p.144) though. During his second “tour” of Iraq—after working for PPI for nearly three years and then heading home for six months—Sam jumped from Kulak to Jamaher Contracting Company, a Saudi firm with multiple military construction contracts. He eventually rose to the position of project manager. Sam views Kulak as “a really bad company,” but one that was ultimately useful. “It was, let me just say, my stepping stone. Just my access to get back in Iraq. Because when you arrive in Iraq you have a lot of companies that will hire you.”

    So how does one successfully jump from one company to another? The following example is provided by Rowel. After more than two years with PPI, he decided to jump. The company he transferred to, Card Industries, provides “manpower solutions” to prime contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily in the electrical and instrumentation fields.17 What this means is that Card does not directly hold military contracts, but recruits and “rents out” (in Rowel’s words) skilled workers to prime contractors that do, such as Parsons, Louis Berger, and Bechtel. Here is Rowel’s account:


  • Can you walk me through the process? How did you find the job? How did you negotiate [this] when you’re already employed by PPI?
  • ROWEL:

  • By that time I heard [about opportunity] from some Filipino people, because we are friendly. We can walk outside the company [camp].
  • ME:

  • You’d ask around?
  • ROWEL:

  • Yeah, ask about other companies. They [Card] said, “Oh yeah, we’re hiring some people.” PPI at that time the salary is only $700 [a month]. Then if there are some rumors—actually not rumors, that’s truth [about hiring]—some Filipinos start moving to the company. They got a salary like, give them like $2 grand, $3 grand [a month].
  • ME:

  • When you heard that [did] everyone start to think about jumping and asking [questions]?
  • ROWEL:

  • Yeah. Because we are here to make money. I heard the company [Card] hiring people … ​rental to another company, Parsons. [So] I applied.
  • ME:

  • How did you apply?
  • ROWEL:

  • After work, because my work is seven to five, after work I go outside, just walking around the base, because we got an ID [badge], we got access, [so] you can walk.
  • ME:

  • You had a green badge?
  • ROWEL:

  • Yes, green. Privileges. We don’t need an escort [to move around the base]. We can walk in secret. Walk over to the [Card] office. Bring my ID and my passport.
  • (p.145) ME:

  • You didn’t need a CV?
  • ROWEL:

  • [I] needed a CV. But [there were] some Filipino people working in KBR office. I walked to the office, secretly talked to guys, a friend working in the office, “Can you make my CV like this?” They print it and give it to me after duty, 5:30. Bring CV, then if the boss, the manager is available he can start interview, asking something about your job and experience. If you agree about the salary they give you, that’s it. Come back [in] three days and sign your contract
  • .

    Jumping may be a strategy taken by individuals, but as Rowel’s story illustrates it is also a social and collaborative endeavor, especially if one wishes to succeed. Critical information circulates among friends and colleagues on bases. Which company is hiring? Who is the manager to talk to? What application materials are needed? Rowel was convinced to jump to Card after working for PPI for more than two years in part because he knew people who had already done this and were willing to explain the process to him. Additionally, when he needed help with an important part of the application—writing up and printing out a CV—he had friends doing administrative work with KBR who he could turn to.

    In some cases supervisors or managers with prime contractors facilitate jumping for those working in the skilled trades like electricians, mechanics, and engineers, in effect poaching workers from their subcontractors. This was the experience of Susi, a power mechanic. Though employed by PPI he worked with KBR personnel in the Green Zone in Baghdad, installing and repairing electricity generators. After a couple of months he was approached by his boss.

    The boss asked me, “Let me see your payment” [PPI’s pay stub]. I gave him the stub, and he said, “What? Is this all?” “Yes, sir. That’s my salary.” “It’s not a salary, it’s just an allowance. Do you accept this?” I said, “Yes, there is nothing else.” “No! You have no future … ​That’s why we are here, to have money, but this kind of salary is not good for you.” “You can do something about this?” He said, “Yes, I can. Wait for me. I’ll just go to the PX and talk to my friend.” After a while he came back. “OK. Tomorrow morning, first thing in the morning, 8 o’clock, we’ll go to the PX, meet my best friend.” Next day in the morning, I saw the man. “Are you ready for an interview?” “No, no, no,” I said. “No need, we will go to the workshop, I’ll show you what we do” … ​Around 15 minutes [later] he said, “Sign this contract for me. Right now. Don’t think twice, just sign it. How much do you want?” “Just give me $2,000 [a month], sir.” “What about $1,500 starting salary and then, in a few months we’ll give you $2,000?” “OK, I’ll sign it then.”

    (p.146) Susi’s and Rowel’s narratives may give the impression that jumping is fairly easy. But this is not the case. A variety of factors shape one’s chances of pulling off a switch from one company to another. Jumping is most prevalent at large bases like KAF and Victory Base Complex in Baghdad that have thousands of workers and dozens of contracting firms, especially if such bases also have less restrictive regulations on foreign workers’ freedom of movement during off hours. At small bases with fewer companies there are fewer options for jumping. These bases also facilitate closer surveillance over workers, making it more difficult to successfully arrange a transfer. As the most desirable companies to jump to are prime contractors—especially U.S. firms—English fluency or competence is another key consideration. Filipinos I talked with who jumped in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Susi and Rowel, are generally more comfortable with English than those who did not. In this Filipinos tend to have an advantage over other TCNs from Asia. Therefore it is possible jumping may be less common overall than my discussions with Filipinos suggest.

    The main reason that jumping is difficult and risky is that subcontracting companies have worked diligently to thwart the practice, often with successful results. Rene, who worked for PPI from 2004 to 2011 as an electrician, told to me he received multiple offers to jump to a new company during this time. But he never did, in part because he saw several cases where PPI convinced the military to rescind these new contracts. Confused, I asked him to explain this to me.


  • Let’s say you successfully jumped. I offer you a job. “Come work with our company. I’ll double your salary.” You say, “OK.” You sneak out, you come to me. Then PPI gets upset and goes to—
  • RENE:

  • The military. Because you [already] have a contract. [The military says to new company], “Send him back to PPI.”
  • ME:

  • Then you get sent back to PPI?
  • RENE:

  • Within twenty-four hours they [PPI] will get your LOA [rescinded]. [You] go to Dubai, back to the Philippines.
  • Rene’s account is supported by Domingo, who worked at Balad Air Base. Originally recruited by PPI, Domingo jumped to a FedEx subcontractor in 2006, increasing his monthly salary from $500 to $1,500. A year later he arranged for a friend to join him, but the move was sabotaged by PPI. “One of our friends, I helped him also. He was already hired at the FedEx [subcontractor] and then they noticed in the office in PPI. They picked him up, then they sent him back home.” Workers are most vulnerable to this strategy in the two to three days it takes between signing a contract and having all the necessary paperwork—such as a new LOA and badge—processed by the contracting officer on a base. To avoid getting caught and sent home, some workers would hide until all the paperwork was (p.147) complete, according to Domingo. “There was a lot of PPI workers [that] jumped but will hide first. They wait for [new] ID. If you have it [new ID and LOA] they [your old company] will not do nothing to you.” Rather than retaining employees who attempt to jump, PPI and other companies pursue the punitive measure of deportation to discourage others who are looking to do the same. This is a powerful deterrent, as most people who decided against jumping cited fear of losing their job as the primary reason they made this decision.

    Rescinding one’s new contract is not the only strategy at companies’ disposal. One of the most effective ways to prevent employees from jumping is to confiscate their passports, a widespread practice not officially banned by the military until 2006.18 An alternative, as Mary recalls her company doing in the mid-2000s, is to impose a stricter curfew on employees. When people asked why, they were told that too many people were jumping. The curfew was accompanied by increased surveillance of workers, including bunk checks (to identify anyone hiding while waiting for paperwork to be finalized) and searching bags when people left their camp in the morning. The reason for this latter check, according to Mary, was that workers wanted to get their clothes and possessions outside the camp before jumping and so would “bring their clothes little by little in a bag. Then they don’t have to come back anymore if they already got their clothes.” If caught with clothes you could try to fool the guards by claiming you worked in laundry operations and saying, “I’m not jumping. I’m just doing my laundry … ​you know [at] the big American laundry” because people who worked there often did this due to the higher quality of washing machines compared to those provided in company camps. Finally, several people who worked in Balad told me that sometime in 2007 or 2008 the main military contractors on the base reached an agreement not to steal each other’s employees, an action not dissimilar to the informal anti-poaching accord reached by Apple, Google, Intel, and other firms during the same point in time in Silicon Valley. But unlike the plight of Silicon Valley engineers, this instance of anti-labor collusion was never covered by the media, or the subject of a federal, class-action, anti-trust lawsuit resulting in a multimillion dollar settlement.19

    The lengths to which companies have been willing to go to stem the tide of jumping extends beyond military bases where it takes place. After a rash of workers quit the company in 2004 and 2005, Serka began putting pressure on its recruiting network in the Philippines. Michelle, the local agent responsible for recruiting dozens of Serka food service workers, recalls that Serka “called the [recruiting] agency” and then the “the agency called people here to inform the wives that their husbands jumped,” which they were reminded is a violation of their contracts. Another recruiting agency remembers the subcontractor they worked with threatening to withhold payments if they did not do a better (p.148) job of screening potential applicants and dissuading them from jumping. The agency’s manager replied, “Why do you put all the fault on me? Everyone says ‘Yes, ma’am.’ The problem is that when they get there [Iraq] they hear that the salary that you’re giving is not enough.” PPI went even further, instructing its Philippine recruiting agency, AES, to file a “complaint for disciplinary action for breach of contract” with POEA against at least nineteen former employees in 2005 and 2006. These complaints argued that by jumping these individuals caused “sustained damages” for PPI and AES, and “tarnished” and “besmirched” the reputation of the country’s recruiting industry. In two cases POEA ruled in favor of the companies, temporarily suspending the rights of the former employees to work abroad for a period of two to four months.20

    These legal proceedings demonstrate again the argument I made at the beginning of the book that one of the main effects of military logistics contracting is the generation of various entanglements—economic, social, political, and, in this case, legal—which extend well beyond the battlefields in Afghanistan and the Middle East. We will return to this point later in chapter 10, which examines the themes of family, community, and returning home. But first I want to explore further life, work, and social relations on bases.


    (9.) Details in this paragraph come from a March 2015 interview with Endaya. On the Taji strike, see also Lee-Brago 2005.

    (14.) A Word document detailing these regulations can be downloaded at http://www.acq.osd.mil/dpap/policy/policyvault/Class_Deviation_2014-O0018_Attachment.docx.

    (15.) For more on labor exploitation, trafficking, and the kafala system, see Ali 2010; Gardner 2010. In recent years several Gulf states have announced reforms to existing kafala labor practices, though human rights activists claim these formal changes have done little to improve labor migrants’ conditions in practice. See, for example, Human Rights Watch’s (2012) critique of Bahrain’s 2009 reforms.

    (16.) A Serka contract with this language can be found in a 2006 Army investigation of the company. See Harris 2006, exhibit 11. Examples of Najlaa and Kulak contracts were provided by Stillman as supplemental material accompanying her 2011 article. Though the online links no longer work the author has retained copies of the contracts.

    (17.) This description comes from Card’s website. See http://www.cardindustriesinc.com/about_us.php.

    (19.) See Streitfeld 2014. Court proceedings for the Silicon Valley case can be found at http://www.cand.uscourts.gov/lhk/hightechemployee. In 2015 the technology companies agreed to a $415 million settlement to compensate former employees harmed by their anti-poaching conspiracy. See Whitney 2015.

    (20.) The above details are taken from two appeals of the original judgments, which were denied by the Department of Labor and Employment in 2013. Copies on file with author.