Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the trafficking of South and Southeast Asian workers, and the “backdoor” or underground recruitment of Filipino labor following the introduction of travel bans to Iraq and Afghanistan. It discusses the continuing problem of labor abuses and legal rationales deployed by the U.S. military in order to disentangle itself as much as possible from oversight responsibility. This chapter describes the instances and types of trafficking and labor exploitation perpetrated by military contractors, situating them within the dynamics of offshoring and downsourcing. It examines illegal recruiting practices that flourished following the 2004 travel ban to Iraq and 2007 ban for Afghanistan imposed by the Philippines. The chapter concludes with a review of rationales by military officials to justify minimal oversight responsibility for trafficking by their contractors and draws parallels to the offshoring of labor and supply chains by U.S. corporations in recent decades.
Because of you I became very rich. Otherwise, if you did not help me get workers from the Philippines how can I have my business inside the base?
—Senior executive of a logistics subcontracting company to an underground recruiter in Manila
On May 15, 2004, the U.S. embassy in Kuwait convened a briefing with representatives from major contractors providing logistics support for the U.S. military in Iraq and Kuwait. This meeting followed stories earlier that month in the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times, alleging trafficking and physical abuse of Indian citizens working at U.S. bases in Iraq. Impressing upon the assembled group that “the scandal was very big in India,” embassy officials encouraged firms to their review hiring and work practices and respond to Indian embassy inquiries concerning the status of their employees, noting that “a forward-leaning tack by U.S. contractors” would be “good public relations, at the very least.”1 Days later India imposed the first travel ban to Iraq by a labor-exporting state.
From U.S. diplomats’ point of view, the most explosive claim in the news articles was that U.S. troops beat Indian laborers—who worked as cooks at the U.S. base Q-West (also known as Endurance) near Mosul—and facilitated their trafficking into Iraq. The embassy in New Delhi mobilized immediately following the publication of these articles in early May, tracking down the named workers and their recruiting agency and conducting its own interviews. Two days later it composed a widely distributed cable detailing findings. Titled “Mission Debunks Media Reports of Abuse of Indian Workers by the U.S. Army,” the document triumphantly declared that it found the reports “to be exaggerated and largely false,” concluding that “there is no evidence that American soldiers were part of the trafficking of these workers” and no evidence “they were beaten by Americans.”2 What is more interesting is what this investigation confirmed—specifically, the workers’ allegations of trafficking and physical abuse.
(p.106) The outline of this series of events is as follows. In August 2003 several men each paid a Mumbai-based recruiting agency, Subhash Vijay Company, $1,600 to obtain food preparation jobs in Kuwait. According to the agency, it obtained visitor visas to Kuwait for the men for GCC, which stated that they would be converted to worker visas upon arrival. Instead the Indians were met by unknown men at the airport in Kuwait, their passports and papers were confiscated, and they were loaded into a van that drove them to Q-West. One of the men interviewed by embassy officials described his experience on the base as “unmentionable,” while another stated that their supervisors made them work up to twenty hours a day and would beat them if they did not agree to work these hours. Responding to these facts the cable tepidly concluded that the embassy’s investigation “indicates these Indians appear to be victims of unscrupulous Indian and Gulf-based manpower agencies” and that “it is possible” U.S. contractors “had overall responsibility for conditions” at Q-West (which the embassy mistakenly identified as “Crew West”). Following this investigative ‘exoneration,’ DoS and DoD officials turned their attention to cajoling the government of India to rescind its travel ban, efforts that met with temporary success in early June after military officials presented it with a draft of protocols to improve living conditions for TCNs in Iraq.3
Most of the egregious examples of trafficking and other labor abuses have been perpetrated by subcontracting firms like GCC that hail from Turkey or the Gulf states. Companies from the latter countries, in particular, are notorious for abysmal treatment of their largely South and Southeast Asian workforces. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented labor abuses suffered by foreign workers in the region, with the problem particularly widespread in the booming construction industry.4 In relying on firms like GCC to provide labor, the military has in effect imported these exploitative labor practices onto its bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the region. At the same time, it has continuously tried to minimize responsibility for trafficking and other labor abuses committed by its contractors, instead defining oversight authority and jurisdictional powers in the narrowest possible terms. Consequently, these abuses have continued to be perpetrated by contractors and recruiting agencies in the decade and a half since they first emerged in Iraq. But the problem of abusive labor and recruiting practices need also be understood in relation to the confluence of two further dynamics connected to changes in military contracting in recent decades: 1) the offshoring of labor and 2) the downsourcing of risk. The former is directly related to the shift in logistics labor from uniformed and American to civilian and foreign, while the latter is a product of complex and lengthy labor supply chains (p.107) associated with subcontracting that foster moral detachment and obfuscate responsibility for labor conditions.
This chapter explores these issues in three parts. First, I describe instances and types of trafficking and labor exploitation perpetrated by military contractors, situating them within the dynamics of offshoring and downsourcing. Next, I examine illegal recruiting practices that flourished following the 2004 travel ban to Iraq and 2007 ban for Afghanistan imposed by the Philippines. These bans pushed recruiting of labor to bases in those countries underground, increasing workers’ precarity. Yet the experience of Filipino workers I interviewed also demonstrates a range of agency and initiative on the part of those who traversed these dark routes. Their stories also highlight the role that military contractors have played in undermining labor-exporting countries’ travel bans. I end the chapter by returning to the question of oversight, analyzing rationales by military officials to justify minimal oversight responsibility for trafficking by their contractors and drawing parallels to the offshoring of labor and supply chains by U.S. corporations in recent decades.
Offshoring Labor and Downsourcing Risk through Subcontracting
Trafficking of workers to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military bases in CENT-COM has continued unabated since KBR first decided to outsource most of its labor needs to subcontractors in 2003. More than a decade later, for instance, an investigation by journalists Samuel Black and Anjali Kamat found substantial evidence that employees of Fluor’s and DynCorp’s subcontractors in Afghanistan were deceived and exploited by recruiting agencies. Of the seventy-five current and former workers they interviewed, “65 said they paid agents fees ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. Many said their monthly salaries, generally $400 to $800, ran several hundred dollars short of what they were promised. Some paid fees, only to be warehoused by an agent for months and never receive a job. Nearly everyone we talked to was still paying back loans.”5 Three years before Black and Kamat published their findings, former military auditor and lawyer Sam McCahon testified before Congress that such practices were widespread, and hence the U.S. government was responsible for allowing trafficking to flourish on its bases in the region.
Even though he [a victim of these trafficking schemes] now knows he was deceived, he is helpless. If he speaks to anyone with the government he is terminated immediately and sent home. (The prime contractor (p.108) typically instructs its employees that they are forbidden to inquire or report trafficking conditions of subcontractors, thereby completing the conspiracy of silence and mitigating detection of the crime.) The victim cannot quit because he has the outstanding loan to the loan shark. He must remain, working 12 hour days, 6 to 7 days per week in the combat zone. By the time he completes two to three years, he has still not retired the debt. He is an indentured servant to the U.S. government contractor.6
As McCahon noted, these debts place workers in a position of involuntary servitude—unable to refuse jobs they are given regardless of working conditions, deception about place and type of employment, or discrepancies between promised and actual salaries. Another way to describe this phenomenon is debt bondage, a form of trafficking to which “workers around the world fall victim … when traffickers or recruiters unlawfully exploit an initial debt the worker assumed as part of the terms of employment.” Significantly, the definition I quote here comes from DoS’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which notes that such practices are illegal under U.S. law.7
One of the more notorious cases of trafficking, which is illustrative of the scale and depth of the problem, occurred in 2008 in Iraq. That spring a Kuwaiti subcontractor, Najlaa International Catering Services, received several DFAC contracts from KBR. In anticipation of labor needs, it contracted with manpower firms in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh to recruit approximately 1,000 workers who paid up to $5,000 each in exchange for the promise of work in Iraq. Najlaa flew the men to Baghdad, confiscated their passports, and put them up in a windowless warehouse, where they spent three months—without pay—due to unrelated mobilization failures that caused Najlaa to be unable to begin its DFAC contracts in September as planned. In December the men staged protests outside of the warehouse, which was adjacent to Baghdad’s international airport, bringing their situation to the attention of reporters. The next month KBR rescinded its contracts with Najlaa, leaving the men without jobs. Eventually, under pressure from the U.S. government, KBR found work for several hundred of them and arranged for the repatriation of the rest. However, for those who were repatriated the ordeal was far from over as they still owed thousands of dollars to creditors with little chance of earning enough to repay their loans.8
Body shops figure prominently in cases of trafficking and labor abuses. In 2006 First Kuwaiti 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. Rory Mayberry, a former company medic, testified about this scheme before Congress in 2007.
(p.109) First Kuwaiti managers asked me to escort 51 Filipino nationals and to make sure that they got on the same flight as I was headed to Baghdad. Many of these Filipinos did not speak any English. I wanted to help them to make sure that they got on the flight ok, just as my managers had asked me. We were all employees of the same company was my feeling. But when we got to the Kuwait Airport, I noticed that all their tickets said that we were going to Dubai. I asked why. A First Kuwaiti manager told me that Filipino passports do not allow Filipinos to fly to Iraq. They must be marked going to Dubai. The First Kuwaiti manager added that I should not tell any of the Filipinos that they were being taken to Baghdad.
As I found later, these men thought that they had signed up for jobs to work in Dubai hotels. One fellow I met told me in broken English that he was excited to start a new job as a telephone repairman. They had no idea that they were being sent to do construction work at the Embassy.
Well, Mr. Chairman, when the airplane took off and the captain announced that we were headed to Baghdad, all you know what broke out on the airplane. The men started shouting. It wasn’t until the security guy working for First Kuwaiti waved an MP-5 in the air that the men settled down. They realized that they had no other choice but to go to Baghdad.9
Mayberry’s testimony was echoed by John Owens, a First Kuwaiti construction manager on the project, who recalled boarding a chartered flight from Kuwait to Baghdad and noticing that all of the other company workers had tickets that stated that their destination was Dubai. When he asked another manager about this he was told, “Don’t say anything. If Kuwaiti customs knows they’re going to Iraq they won’t let them on the plane.”10 When the plane landed in Baghdad all of the men were smuggled past customs into the Green Zone.
In addition to trafficking, workers in Iraq and Afghanistan have frequently experienced a host of other labor abuses ranging from squalid and inadequate living conditions to wage theft. Owens observed First Kuwaiti workers “verbally and physically abused” and having “their salary docked for as much as three day’s pay for reasons such as being five minutes late.”11 Wage theft is perhaps the most common form of exploitation perpetuated by subcontractors. This takes two primary forms. The first involves paying wages that are substantially less than initially promised. The journalist Sarah Stillman provides a good example of this in her gripping account of two Fijian women, Vinnie and Lydia, recruited to work in Dubai in 2007 with promises of salaries ranging from $1,500 to $3,800 a month. (p.110)
When they arrived in Dubai the subcontractor that they worked for, Kulak (a body shop from Turkey), told them the jobs were actually located in Iraq and they would be paid only $700 a month. After being passed on to another Turkish subcontractor their pay was again cut in half.12 Another variation of this form is reneging on promised salary bumps after a promotion or a designated length of time working for a company.
A second form of wage theft involves refusing to pay for overtime or hours worked beyond the terms of a contract. For example, contracts that Filipino DFAC workers signed with Serka in 2003 indicated that their schedule of work would be eight hours a day, six days a week, with their monthly salary based upon this forty-eight-hour workweek (figure 7.1).13 Yet every one of the former Serka workers that I interviewed stated that they worked twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, with no additional pay for the extra thirty-six hours worked each week. This is not unusual as twelve-hour workdays with no days off is standard for TCNs working for subcontracting companies.14
As mentioned above, the provenance of subcontracting companies that have been implicated in the most egregious cases of trafficking is not immaterial. Nearly all hail from Turkey or Gulf states where such practices are widespread. Also relevant, in my view, is that body shops like GCC, First Kuwaiti, PPI, and Kulak view their largely unskilled workforce as a disposable commodity. This is well illustrated by the not uncommon phenomenon of passing workers on to other firms—as happened to Vinnie and Lydia—and Najlaa’s abandoning its workers (p.111) at the warehouse in Baghdad after its contracts with KBR were first delayed and then fell through.
There are two other dynamics that are important for understanding the prevalence of labor abuses in connection to military contracting. The first is what Darryl Li calls the offshoring of military work: “The so-called privatization revolution has also been an offshoring revolution, with U.S. contractors frequently overseeing an even larger set of foreign subcontractors and workers. … TCNs in particular work on U.S. bases under military authority while lacking most of the protections of American law, local regimes, or their home governments. They are often employed by non-U.S. companies subcontracted by American corporations, paid a fraction of what American contractors and soldiers make, and can be easily deported if deemed noncompliant.”15 In framing military contracting as offshoring, Li draws a parallel to the strategy of offshoring manufacturing that numerous U.S. corporations have pursued in recent decades. Though there are differences, this is an instructive comparison. The primary driver of offshoring is a desire by companies to lower costs, shifting manufacturing from expensive U.S. labor to cheaper countries like Vietnam, China, and Bangladesh. Savings come not just from lower wages, but also less stringent labor and environmental standards in these countries. The result is that offshore workers are paid significantly less and have access to few of the legal safeguards that U.S. workers enjoy. In similar fashion, military contracting is driving a shift in the composition of the workforce from uniformed and American to civilian and foreign, with an attendant decrease in wages and labor standards. This is especially the case for TCNs, who are caught in a legal limbo in which neither U.S. nor local labor laws apply. In effect, overseas military bases operate as exceptional spaces, jurisdictional voids where these workers have little to no legal recourse when subject to labor abuses by employers.
Another, related, manner in which the lens of offshoring is productive involves the military’s desire to disentangle as much as possible logistics operations from legal and political constraints. Here the relevant analogy is the offshore oil and gas industry. As Hannah Appel compellingly demonstrates through her ethnographic examination of oil extraction in Equatorial Guinea, the “offshore” does not merely refer to the location of the oil rigs off the country’s coast, but is actively created through various practices that serve to disentangle operations as much as possible from the messiness of the “onshore.” The key to this, Appel argues, is modularity—of labor regimes, contracts, technology, and infrastructure—that tends towards “internal containment.” She explains:
Modular or prefabricated structures do not require changing the zoning code but, instead, come with an anticipatory relationship to (p.112) place and time—legally compliant, mobile, without foundation, impermanent, and disposable or reusable elsewhere. So too with offshore oil platforms, contracts and subcontracts, and mobile labor forces. These are work-intensive efforts to create juridical and even geographic spaces in which companies can abide by their own rules, bring their own technologies, infrastructures, evidentiary and legal regimes, and people—laborers, lawyers, technicians, consulting firms, specialists, and managers.16
As with military logistics, a fundamental aspect of modularity in the offshore drilling industry involves the extensive use of subcontracting and foreign labor, which serves to insulate companies from regulatory oversight.
The second dynamic—the downsourcing of risk—is directly related to complex and lengthy labor supply chains. As the journalist Cam Simpson, who wrote a powerful book detailing the experiences of the twelve trafficked Nepalese men and their families, puts it:
There is no single villain pulling strings from the top, but instead, several individual actors who make up an overall chain of conduct. It is an inherently transnational enterprise that utilizes a global supply chain extending across multiple countries, and it requires an extensive transnational network of recruiters, contractors, subcontractors, parent corporations, and subsidiaries crossing jurisdictions, countries, and continents. The sheer number of actors involved allows each to point a finger somewhere else—to someone below him in the supply chain, or someone above—or simply to deny his own individual piece of responsibility.17
Consider the example of the Indian workers at Q-West that I began this chapter with. Subhash Vijay had hired them to work for GCC, which was a subcontractor for Alargan Group (a Kuwaiti firm), which in turn was a subcontractor for The Event Source (a U.S. firm), which in turn was the company originally subcontracted by KBR, the military’s prime contractor (table 7.1).18 There were, in other words, four layers of subcontractors and recruiting agencies between the workers and the military’s prime contractor. The labor supply chain that the two Fijian women, Lydia and Vinnie, traversed was of similar length and complexity. They were first approached by a local recruiter in their neighborhood in Suva, who directed them to Meridian Services Agency, which was recruiting workers for Kulak. Kulak in turned passed the women on to a fellow Turkish firm, Nasa, which was a contractor for AAFES, the DoD organization that manages the military’s PX stores around the world (table 7.1). (p.113)
Table 7.1 Transnational military labor supply chains
India Labor Supply Chain
Local recruiter (India)▸ Subhash Vijay (India)▸ GCC (Kuwait)▸ Alargan Group (Kuwait)▸ The Event Source (U.S.)▸ KBR (U.S.)▸ U.S. military
Fiji Labor Supply Chain
Local recruiter (Fiji)▸ Meridian Services Agency (Fiji)▸ Kulak (Turkey)▸ Nasa (Turkey)▸ AAFES (DoD Agency)
Nepal Labor Supply Chain
Local recruiter (Nepal)▸ Moon Light Consultant (Nepal)▸ Morning Star for Recruitment and Manpower Supply (Jordan)▸ Bisharat (Jordan)▸ Daoud & Partners (Jordan)▸ KBR (U.S.)▸ U.S. military
Both of these lengthy labor supply chains are relatively straightforward compared to the convoluted case of the Nepalese workers. As with the Indian and Fijian examples, the twelve men’s journey began with a local recruiter, who put them in touch with Moon Light Consultant, a recruiting agency in Kathmandu. Moon Light was working with a Jordanian recruiting agency, Morning Star for Recruitment and Manpower Supply, which was promising work at Le Royal, a luxury hotel in Amman. Upon the men’s arrival, however, Morning Star immediately passed them on to Bisharat, a shady Jordanian labor broker that supplied workers for KBR’s Jordanian LOGCAP subcontractor, Daoud & Partners (table 7.1). Bisharat housed the men in compounds in Amman for several weeks before arranging a convoy of taxis to take them to U.S. bases in Iraq, a risky journey that the men did not survive.
Following Amanda Wise, I argue that these chains of labor recruiters and contractors—which she points out are characteristic of transnational labor “pyramid subcontracting”—obfuscates responsibility for working conditions and fosters a sense of moral detachment whereby military officials and prime contractors deem labor abuse a problem that largely lies outside their remit. It also contributes to the dehumanizing treatment of workers as a “disposable army” of labor.19 In short, lengthy labor supply chains engendered by subcontracting induces a downsourcing of responsibility and risk—which ultimately falls on workers themselves in the absence of effective oversight of subcontractors’ actions.20
Legally, one means through which risk and moral responsibility is downsourced is by reference to “privity of contract,” a doctrine that limits the rights or obligations of third parties to contracts. The Army’s manual on operational contracting states that when the U.S. military enters a contract with a prime contractor such as KBR, and the prime contractor in turn makes separate contracts with subcontractors,
The prime contractor has privity with their first-tier subcontractor, but the government has no privity with any of the subcontractors at any tier; (p.114) therefore, the government contracting officer cannot direct the prime’s first-tier, nor any lower tier, subcontractors. This term is important to the Service commander in that only the prime contractor has direct responsibility to the government. This fact can limit the directive ability of Service commanders, through the cognizant contracting officer, to directly enforce contractor management policies on subcontractors and their employees.21
Read cynically, the Army’s invocation of privity of contract is very useful for washing its hands of oversight responsibility. And in fact, this is exactly the argument that prime contractors in turn have used to justify their lack of responsibility for monitoring labor abuses by subcontractors. The vice president in charge of contracting for one LOGCAP prime contractor, for example, bluntly told Sam Mc-Cahon that his company was taking no measures to mitigate trafficking because “we have no privity of contract with the subcontractors’ employees, so it’s not our problem.”22 We will return to the question of privity of contract in the final section of this chapter, following an examination of illegal recruiting that flourished in the Philippines after the country’s imposition of travel bans to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Underground Recruiting and Navigating the Travel Bans
Illegal recruiting of labor for the U.S. military is not just a matter of trafficking. Indeed, arguably the most traveled dark route has involved the underground recruitment of workers from labor-exporting states like India, Nepal, and the Philippines in the years after they imposed travel bans to Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the bans, the military directly supported the continued importation of workers from these countries due to its immense labor needs. This is demonstrated most clearly in its efforts to pressure Kuwait not to enforce the travel bans at its border crossings in 2004, as discussed in the introduction. For years the military ignored the overwhelming presence of Filipinos, Indians, and Nepalese working on U.S. bases. Finally, in summer 2010 CENTCOM issued a memorandum ordering contractors in Iraq to comply with “TCN laws” by repatriating workers from countries with existing travel bans (at the time this included Nepal and the Philippines).23 By then the drawdown of troops was in full swing and thus the need for labor had abated, rendering this shift in stance rather hollow. Later in the year the military extended this order to Afghanistan. In 2011 the Philippines responded by modifying its travel ban to Afghanistan, exempting citizens (p.115) who had existing contracts with companies working on military bases.24 Effectively this grandfathered in those already working in the country, while continuing the ban on recruitment of new hires. Yet the flow of Filipino labor to Afghanistan continued.
So how have Filipinos looking for military work evaded Philippine authorities seeking to enforce the travel bans? For many the path still goes through local recruiters and recruiting agencies. Because agencies in the Philippines who recruit for military contractors can have their licenses revoked if they are caught, recruiting has gone underground. To understand how this works I conducted interviews with both workers recruited after the bans were implemented and agencies that have provided labor for three different subcontractors in Iraq and Afghanistan during this period. In some ways underground recruiting is similar to what took place before the bans. Agencies still work with contractors to determine labor needs. They also continue to vet applicants for relevant skills, arrange necessary medical exams, and organize transportation to the region.
Beyond this veneer of business as usual, however, the risks and costs—for both recruiting agencies and workers—can be substantial. One agency I talked with stated that the company they worked for continued to pay them a fee for each worker they successfully deployed, but also allowed the agency to charge applicants a separate processing fee, which amounted to roughly $200 per person. According to a 2006 investigative report by the Army, following the travel ban Serka began deducting $400 from Filipinos’ pay after arriving in Iraq, ostensibly to cover travel costs even though the company was already compensated for these expenses in its contract with KBR.25 These fees and deductions appear to be on the low end according to workers I interviewed, who recall paying up to $3,000 for jobs in Iraq or Afghanistan. Such costs are much higher than the Philippines allows for legal recruiting, where laws stipulate that fees cannot exceed one month’s salary. Without question this indicates that supplying labor during bans can be a lucrative proposition, especially for the handful of recruiting agencies and politically connected individuals willing to take the risks. More than one person I talked with, for instance, suggested that President Arroyo’s son, Mikey Arroyo, worked with PPI in the early years after the ban to ensure that its workers destined for Iraq would not be detained by officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.
Ensuring the safe passage of workers during bans is an expensive proposition for military contractors and recruiting agencies without such political connections. The head of one agency, whom I will call Edward, told me that “the most difficult one [stage of the underground recruiting process] that we are doing is the airport … immigration people really cost a lot of money.” For each batch of eight to twelve recruits that he sends he has to pay officials at the airport roughly (p.116) $500 to ensure that they are not interdicted. Edward counts himself as fortunate that none of his recruits have been stopped, attributing this to the fact that his contact at the airport is an “honest person” who shares the bribes with coworkers. The consequences for recruiters like Edward if their people are detained at the airport for violating the travel bans are significant. He would lose not only his placement fee from the contractor, but also face the risk of losing his accreditation if someone told authorities who was behind the scheme.
While recruiting agencies have continued to play a role in facilitating labor acquisition after the travel bans, my research suggests that the majority of those who have found jobs during this period have done so without the help of agencies. More commonly, companies with Filipino workers in Iraq or Afghanistan have asked them to spread the word to families and friends about job opportunities when they call home. John, who is from a village in Pampanga, explained to me how one of his cousins arranged work for him and nine other family members this way:
How did you find jobs in Afghanistan?
Before we went we had a contract. … Our cousin there sent us papers to sign. Our cousin went to Afghanistan and found employers for all of us. … As soon as she found employers it took a couple of weeks for the papers and then I was gone.
How did she find these jobs?
She had American friends, and would hear [about opportunities] from other Filipinos at mealtime.
In other instances those who have completed a contract with a firm, such as PPI, are contacted by former managers asking if they want to work again. Alternatively, former employees reach out to companies asking about work. One longtime PPI worker, Fidel, described this last scenario to me: “I sent an email [saying], ‘I’m a employee of PPI before in Iraq, so I’m looking if there’s a vacancy for equipment operator.’ I’m lucky. In 2010, January, they’re hiring on Afghanistan. They send me a ticket, [tourist] visa, just in one week, I go fly to Dubai.” Rowel, an electrician who began working for PPI in Baghdad in 2004, went home in 2006, and then returned to Iraq later that year, also mentions PPI’s use of a tourist visa to get its workers out of the Philippines after the ban was introduced:
Did you have to buy a tourist visa to Dubai? Is that how you got back?
I think that PPI, the main office in Dubai [arranged it]. They were telling [officials in UAE] that we got [a] seminar in Dubai. We (p.117) got a tourist visa over there so that PPI keeps pushing that, “Oh these guys need to go in Dubai to take a seminar,” and then [they] send [us] another country.
PPI was your sponsor for the visa to Dubai?
While PPI provided tourist visas and plane tickets for Fidel and Rowel, they were on their own when it came to clearing immigration at the airport in Manila. Dubai is the primary transportation hub for those illegally working for military contractors, so those with tourist visas to the emirate are given extra scrutiny. If an official believes that someone with a tourist visa is actually travelling to Iraq or Afghanistan they can detain them for questioning or prohibit them from leaving the country. Luckily for Fidel he had a contact at the airport who helped him get through, telling him which line to go to and who to pay to ensure safe passage. When he arrived in Dubai he was greeted by a Filipino who said, “Are you PPI?” It turned out he was not the only one put on the plane by PPI. “There was so many of us. There was a list. I thought I was the only one.” Fidel and the other workers were taken to PPI accommodations in Jebel Ali, a port complex in the southwest margins of the emirate. “The first days [were] preparation. You submit your papers, passport, sign contracts, medical [exams]. … After medical—so a week [later]—[you are] scheduled to fly to Afghanistan. Every day we just check on the blackboard if there’s a flight going to Afghanistan. Every day … maybe four people, five people, six people, three people. There’s flights going to Kandahar, to Bagram. PPI sent us to different camps.”
What’s remarkable about Fidel’s account is that it illustrates PPI’s intimate involvement in facilitating the evasion of the Philippine travel ban, from the procurement of tourist visas under false pretenses to purchase of airline tickets for Dubai. It also demonstrates the scale of the company’s underground labor acquisition scheme, with the daily deployment of workers to bases across Afghanistan. PPI was not the only contractor that went to great lengths to get workers past Philippine authorities. Christian, who was hired as a baker by Serka in 2008, was provided a tourist visa to Turkey and booked on a byzantine string of flights that avoided Manila’s international airport and departed first to Singapore to lessen suspicion of immigration authorities: “Manila to Cebu [a large city in the Visayas region of the Philippines]; Cebu to Singapore; Singapore to Dubai; Dubai to Turkey, Istanbul; Istanbul to Adana.” As a further precaution the company gave Christian and twenty-four fellow passengers instructions concerning the line they should enter at Cebu’s airport to assure their safe passage out of the country. Upon arrival in Adana they were put on a bus and transported overland to bases in northern Iraq.
(p.118) In addition to continuing its underground recruiting efforts in the Philippines, PPI also targeted Filipinos and Indians already working in Dubai. One woman, Grace, was working under the table while on a tourist visa at the City Centre Deira shopping mall in Dubai in 2005 when she was approached by a Filipino representative from PPI who asked if she wanted to work in Iraq.
I said, “Iraq? They’re having a problem here. They say that it’s the worst going there.” “No, it’s not. I’ve been here,” he told me. So I said, “OK, how much will I be earning?” He said, “For a start, they’re going to give you $550 [a month].” Actually, at that time, $1 is equivalent to 56 pesos, that’s why I grabbed it. I said, “OK.” “After six months, they’re going to increase you $50, you will be earning $600.” I said, “OK, I’ll get it.”
How much more was that than you were making in Dubai?
It was triple. … I’m a single mom. I’m thinking, I got three daughters going into college. How can I [be] able to send them money if I don’t—if I can’t find a good job in Dubai? That’s why instead of thinking, “Oh, Dubai is a nice place,” it was, “Why not try Iraq?”
Grace recalls that PPI was looking for Filipinos with older passports that did not have a travel ban stamp (Figure 7.2), as this would make it easier to get them past Dubai airport officials onto a flight to Baghdad.
Whether through an agency or one’s own initiative, a noticeable difference between legal and underground recruiting concerns how job opportunities are made known to potential workers. Advertising in print or online is out as it attracts government scrutiny. Chance encounters with crowds of applicants in front of recruiting agencies in Manila—which was how Carlos found out about PPI’s hiring binge in early 2004—also ceased. Therefore following the bans, military contractors and recruiting agencies have become more dependent on local agents to inform people about hiring initiatives. Michelle, for example, facilitated the recruitment of most of her neighbors for Serka after the travel ban to Iraq was imposed. Also, as noted above, companies that have large Filipino contingents in Iraq or Afghanistan mobilize workers to spread the word about hiring opportunities to families and friends when they call home, or reach out to former employees about returning for another contract. As a result, the travel bans have served to further concentrate the pool of potential workers by ratcheting up a spatial path dependency when it comes to recruiting military labor. As one recruiting agency told me, “Once the ban is in place you can’t cast your net that wide, you have to use the existing connections, which keeps it [recruiting] within the same communities that started out.” (p.119)
A second distinction involves risk. While some Filipinos recruited to work in Iraq prior to the travel bans endured substandard living conditions on military bases, or were forced to work far more hours than stipulated in their contracts with no extra pay—as was the case with Serka’s employees—the state provided some modicum of oversight over the recruiting process, which lessened risk. This is especially apparent when one compares the experience of Filipinos during the pre-ban period with South Asian workers recruited by dodgy and unregulated agencies like Subhash Vijay and Moon Light.
Navigating the underground recruiting process is a much more precarious proposition. To begin, successfully obtaining a job is significantly more expensive, from exorbitant fees charged by recruiting agencies to bribes paid to airport officials to smooth passage to Dubai. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the fees and bribes will result in employment. Job scams have become common. In 2012 more than twenty Filipinos were stranded in Afghanistan after promised construction jobs failed to materialize. They each lost the $1,400 dollars they had paid to a company called RMR Construction.26 For those detained at the airport, any money paid to recruiters or contacts in Iraq and Afghanistan is lost, and they receive greater scrutiny from officials in the future. Thus from the perspective of Filipino workers, finding military work under the travel ban regime in (p.120) the Philippines more resembles the experiences of South Asian laborers when it comes to risk. Consequently, according to Edward, those willing to take their chances are often more desperate: “During the ban you can only recruit who wants to go undocumented. Usually these people are really desperate to have a job. … You cannot hire workers with skill really. A [skilled] worker will not go undocumented, di ba [right]? You cannot get people who are really experienced. You can only get fast the tricycle [taxi] driver.” Yet despite increased risks, the Philippines has continued to be a major source of labor for military contractors following the imposition of the travel bans. In 2010 recruiters in Manila estimated that more than 5,000 Filipinos were working in Afghanistan, with this number “growing” every day as people continued to sneak into the country.27
Those who successfully obtain a job can still to be negatively affected by the travel bans. Several people I talked with decided not to go home between contracts, fearful that they would not be able to leave the Philippines again. Fidel stayed for three years in Iraq even though he was suffering from lung problems that required major surgery when he came home in 2007. Those who do return often face the prospect of losing their jobs, or coming up with money to bribe officials at the airport when they leave. Rick, a firefighter in Afghanistan who was at home on vacation when I met him in 2015, described his experience for me:
After one year, 2008, that’s the time they banned Afghanistan for all the Filipinos. That’s why when we go on vacation after one year of contract—we had to go on vacation—so others cannot come back because Afghanistan is banned already. We took the chance of paying money through escort in the airport so that we can exit.
What do you mean an escort, because other people talk about this?
Some travel agency, they offer us, “If you want, I have an escort and helping you to go exit.”
To get past immigration?
For immigration. But that’s on your own risk because sometimes even though you pay already and you pass the immigration, in the boarding still they checking, “Where you going?” “Afghanistan.” They will pick you up and put you out again, so you spend a lot of money [for nothing].
How much did you spend for an escort through?
The first year I go on vacation and then come back, I pay 14,000 [pesos—roughly $300], and then second it became 18,000 [$350], then the third is 30,000 [$600]. Others they pay 40,000 [$800] or a $1,000 dollars. That money when we reach Afghanistan and we got the receipt that we pay escort, the company will pay us. Wait. The company reimbursed you for the escort?
Yes. First, it come from your pocket because company they don’t know if you passed the immigration. When you got there because they need you, they need workers, that’s the time they will reimburse the money you spent in escort and everything … as long as you have receipt they will pay.
Rick was the only person I talked with whose employer reimbursed him for the expense of evading the travel bans. His situation is unique due to the fact that as an airport firefighter he had specialized skills that were in high demand, and because his company is a prime contractor for the military. As I discuss more in chapters 8 and 9, this means that his status and privileges are much greater than those working for subcontractors.
While the travel bans pushed recruiting and travel to and from bases underground, thus increasing workers’ precarity, Filipinos I interviewed also demonstrated remarkable initiative and agency in obtaining work with military contractors during this period. Take Anne, who was fired by Serka in 2006 for participating in protests against restrictive rules forbidding cell phones and the ability to move around her base unescorted. Two years earlier she had joined a large labor strike after Serka promised workers $600/month (which was stipulated in the contracts she and others signed) but paid only $300/month for DFAC work. At that time she and other strikers were supported by KBR and the military. But her participation in protests two years later—against rule changes that were introduced by the military, not her employer—convinced Serka to terminate her contract and send her home. Not content with staying in the Philippines, Anne procured a tourist visa to Dubai and “approached every agency in Dubai” about work in Iraq. After seven months searching, an Indian-run agency offered her a job with Kulak. Another laborer, Andrew, returned home in 2008 after four years with PPI in Iraq. Then in 2009 he decided to look for military work again. He contacted a Filipina fixer living in the UAE who was recommended by a former colleague in Iraq. The fixer helped him obtain a tourist visa and plane ticket to Dubai, put him up in a crowed apartment—“Just a two bedroom, [with] 40 Filipinos”—and arranged interviews with military contractors. Three months and $2,000 in fees later he obtained a job with a U.S. engineering firm, Arkel, in Afghanistan.
Another option involves smuggling oneself into Iraq or Afghanistan, with the hope of finding a job with a military contractor after you arrive. Two examples suffice. The first comes from Mary, who smuggled herself into Victory Base Complex in Baghdad in 2005 after a promised job that she paid $1,400 for fell through.
We got to Dubai [and] they told us that they don’t hire to Iraq … I’m crying, always crying, because I am thinking of my mother’s land. It’s in the pawnshop [mortgaged]. Then someone told me, “You want to go to Iraq, one week, [by] cargo airplane?”
With a contract or without?
We don’t have a contract. Three girls. We go there. We don’t have a visa, we don’t have a contract. … We go to the [Baghdad] airport. We go into the back where somebody pick us up by bus.
How did you find out about the bus?
My coworkers [friends] in PPI. They were already there.
PPI didn’t give you a contract but your friends said, “If you come with us we can find you a contract, we’ll get you a job”?
Like that, yeah … One month before we work, we go outside. [Until then] we only stay in the [PPI] camp. If you don’t have badge, you don’t go outside the camp. It’s only in the lady’s camp we stay there.
Like Mary, John’s cousin initially smuggled herself into Afghanistan without a job offer. John explained how this works for me.
There is a camp right outside of KAF [Kandahar Airfield] that is an Afghan [army] camp, and Filipinos often stay there to look for jobs.
So you would fly into KAF, leave the base, and then look for a job?
You had to coordinate with relatives or friends to find a job, because you wouldn’t be able to get back on the base without papers [John is referring here to a letter of authorization (LOA), which states that the person is an employee of a contracting firm and thus authorized to be on the base].
How long would people stay there?
A month. Five months. Sometimes people would stay that long because they couldn’t find work. Sometimes they went by land from Dubai, because the food comes from Dubai through Pakistan [and] they hitch a ride.
Mary’s and John’s cousin’s stories are but two of many examples of Filipinos sneaking into Iraq and Afghanistan for work that were recounted for me. Given the widespread flouting of travel bans by the military and its contractors, it is understandable that individuals are willing to risk smuggling themselves into an active warzone in the hope of finding work.
(p.123) Nearly every news account of the experiences of South and Southeast Asian laborers working for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan focuses on trafficking and labor abuses such as wage theft. That the military has done little to combat these human rights violations by its contractors and subcontractors is disgraceful. But there is a danger in this exclusive focus on exploitation, in that TCNs tend to be painted as passive and helpless victims. The above stories offer a necessary corrective to this view. Indeed, time and time again I was struck by the ingenuity and courage displayed by Filipinos who have labored in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is especially the case when it comes to labor activism by workers like Anne, which is the topic of the next chapter.
In 2008 families of the Nepalese workers killed in Iraq filed a federal lawsuit in Texas alleging that the men were victims of a trafficking scheme organized by Daoud & Partners and KBR. After initially allowing the case to go forward, the judge reversed course in 2014, declaring that congressional anti-trafficking legislation “was silent with regards to extraterritoriality” prior to 2008, therefore the plaintiffs did not have standing as the alleged crimes did not take place on U.S. soil.28 In similar fashion, a 2006 DoD investigation into the incident declared that “the U.S. government had no jurisdiction over the persons, offenses, or circumstances that resulted in the Nepalese deaths.”29 On its face this was a rather curious claim given that Daoud & Partners was one of the largest military subcontractors in Iraq and the men were kidnapped while in transit to work on U.S. bases in the country. Such comments, however, are consistent with the desire of the military to distance itself as much as possible from responsibility for an oversight role when it comes to subcontractors’ labor practices.
Indeed, what stands out in the Najlaa and Nepalese cases—as well as many other incidents—is the inability or unwillingness of the military to provide effective oversight of subcontractors with regard to their treatment of workers, despite the fact that these workers’ employment is entirely a consequence of military contracting. While acknowledging legal complexities raised by overseas contingency contracting, it is striking how often narrow, legalistic arguments are used to justify or explain lack of oversight responsibility when it comes to labor exploitation by subcontractors. Following its initial investigation into the Najlaa affair, for instance, the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) concluded that “the USG [U.S. government] does not have jurisdiction over these TCNs, as these men are not being held on USG property, nor do they have USG contracts.”30 More farcically, a DoD Inspector General report argued that “while (p.124) certainly disconcerting, the facts and circumstances did not suggest that Human Trafficking Violations had occurred” because “TCN personnel housed in the … complex were free to leave if they had decided to do so.”31 Move along, nothing to see here, in other words.
So how do military officials justify evasion of oversight responsibility? One way, as noted above, is by invoking the legal principle of privity of contract. According to privity doctrine contracts establish a legal relationship between parties, with attendant rights and obligations. This relationship does not apply to third parties. Thus in the case of defense contracts, the government and prime contractors have privity, prime contractors and their first tier of subcontractors have privity, but the government, as a third party, does not have privity with subcontractors. In other contexts the U.S. government has typically invoked privity of contract to shield itself from claims by subcontractors.32 In fact, it is against government policy to deal directly with subcontractors in order to maintain the legal distance that privity provides.33 But privity can be permeable going the other way as the government has a variety of tools available to monitor and enforce subcontractors’ policies and behavior if it so desires.
The most powerful tool is the use of “flow down” clauses. This involves directing prime contractors to insert clauses into contracts with subcontractors requiring the latter to comply with certain provisions. For example, a standard “audit clause” requires a subcontractor to allow the government to examine records of cost and pricing data.34 Federal regulations also now require a “combating trafficking in persons” clause for all contracts, including flow downs of this clause for subcontractors. The current version of this clause prohibits the use of forced labor in the performance of contracts, confiscation of passports, use of recruiters that do not comply with labor laws of the country in which recruiting takes place, and the charging of recruiting fees. It also directs companies to “provide timely and complete responses to Government auditors’ and investigators’ requests for documents” and “reasonable access to facilities and staff … to ascertain compliance” with prohibitions against trafficking.35 So in theory, at least, privity should not be a significant stumbling block to effective oversight.
In practice, however, the military’s efforts to enforce prohibitions against trafficking through contracts amount to little more than legalistic formality. Black and Kamat describe the experience of one former worker in Iraq who recalled that upon arriving at the military base “his contractor required him and his colleagues to sign a Trafficking Awareness form, issued by the Department of Defense. ‘We all knew—and they knew—that we had paid,’ he said, referring to his supervisors. ‘Oh, yeah, everybody knows.’”36 As this example illustrates, the military does not assertively ascertain whether or not trafficking has occurred, but effectively outsources this task to contractors, who are tasked with developing and implementing (p.125) a “compliance plan.”37 The problem here is that “contractors essentially have been asked to turn themselves in upon learning that an employee has violated this policy—even at the risk of contract termination, suspension and debarment. Thus, while the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulations] and DFARS [Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement] ban on human trafficking is a warning to Contractors that such activities are expressly prohibited, it is doubtful that the regulations will accomplish their laudable objectives, since Contractors are unlikely to self-report.”38 Moreover, prime contractors, who are tasked with policing the behavior of their subcontractors, are largely dependent on the latter’s cooperation, especially when it comes to conducting interview checks with workers. One Fluor employee from Bosnia who worked as a QA/QC supervisor in Afghanistan explained to me: “Usually they [subcontractors’ foreign employees] don’t speak English at all. I had a language assistant which is from their company. That was against the contract … in my documentation I’m not supposed to have any person next to me and especially from [the] same company. There’s no other way, though. I had to have one. Your [the subcontractor’s] language assistant between me and him.” From the perspective of workers this pro forma process provides no incentive to speak truthfully about their experiences. As an Indian worker for a subcontractor in Afghanistan told Black and Kamat, “We’ve already paid agents for the job. If we tell the U.S. military that we paid a fee, they’ll just send us back, and we’ll lose everything.”39 Given all this, it is not surprising that a 2011 report on wartime contracting commissioned by Congress concluded, “The Commission uncovered tragic evidence of the recurrent problem of trafficking in persons by labor brokers or subcontractors of contingency contractors. Existing prohibitions on such trafficking have failed to suppress it.”40
The second, and primary, legal justification against more robust enforcement of anti-trafficking prohibitions and other labor standards centers on jurisdiction, or rather a supposed lack thereof. Westphalian sovereignty is based on the assumption that political borders define jurisdiction, with each state possessing absolute authority to enforce the law within its territory. In reality this territorial ideal has always been riddled with extraterritorial exceptions where domestic law extends beyond borders. This was particularly true during the age of empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. John Darwin goes as far as to claim that “extraterritorial ‘rights’” ensured by “bases, enclaves, garrisons, gunboats, treaty ports and unequal treaties” were “as much the expression of … European imperialism as were the colonies and protectorates.”41 Nor was extraterritoriality limited to European powers. By 1900 the U.S. signed a number of treaties guaranteeing extraterritorial jurisdiction over its citizens living in North Africa (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli), the Middle East (Turkey, Muscat, Persia), Asia (Japan, China), and several other locales. The most extensive of these was China, (p.126) where Americans, along with European foreign residents, “enjoyed virtual immunity from native law, and were instead under the extraterritorial authority of their own home governments.”42 By the turn of the century legal demands created by the large American presence in China prompted the establishment of a “U.S. Court for China” based in Shanghai, which operated until 1942. “In sum,” legal scholar Kal Raustialia observes, “empires and extraterritoriality were closely linked.”43
Echoes of these imperial extraterritorial exceptions continue, most significantly SOFAs that provide for varying degrees of extraterritorial jurisdiction over U.S. personnel and dependents deployed to overseas bases. In 2000 Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which closed a jurisdictional “legal Bermuda triangle” by extending extraterritorial authority for certain crimes over military contractors.44 Notably, MEJA applies to foreign nationals as well as U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, MEJA’s effect has been minimal. In the first ten years after the law’s passage only fifteen attempted and successful prosecutions involved civilian contractors—and none of these concerned trafficking or other labor abuses.45 One reason for this is the difficulty U.S. prosecutors face in gathering evidence overseas, especially in war zones. More significant, though, is “a simple lack of political will to bring cases.”46
This lack of will is often masked by specious references to jurisdictional gaps that no longer exist. The Najlaa case is emblematic here. Nowhere in the MEJA, for instance, does it state that extraterritorial jurisdiction is limited to crimes that occur on U.S. property or bases, as DCMA claimed. In fact, MEJA was successfully used to prosecute the four Blackwater contractors who killed fourteen civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007. Najlaa, in contrast, was never prosecuted for its labor abuses. It even continued to receive contracts from KBR and the military. This despite the conclusion of officials at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that the incident was “essentially the trafficking of low-skilled expat workers into forced labor” due to the fact that “these people are only making $300 to $400 a month (for 12hrs/day 7day work weeks) and they are effectively working for little or nothing for the 6–12 months it takes them to recoup the broker’s fee.”47
In addition to MEJA prosecutions the military has a number of other legal and policy avenues at its disposal if it wished to be more aggressive in curtailing labor abuses by subcontractors. One possible step, recommended by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC), would be to “require that foreign prime contractors and subcontractors consent to U.S. jurisdiction as a condition of award of a contract or subcontract,” thereby eliminating any potential confusion as to the reach of U.S. law.48 Another approach would be to use the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which gives the military jurisdiction over civilian personnel working with troops in overseas operations, to prosecute (p.127) contractors for trafficking or other labor abuses.49 Beyond prosecutions, the military could also be more aggressive in pursuing debarment or suspension of contractors in response to evidence of trafficking and other labor abuses. That it does not pursue these avenues or MEJA prosecutions is telling. Especially when one considers the lengths to which the U.S. government and courts have expanded extraterritorial jurisdiction across a range of domains in recent decades—from the “war on drugs” to foreign sovereign debt disputes.50 Indeed, it is hard to disagree with the conclusion of one legal analysis of trafficking by military contractors that “the main issue plaguing the U.S. Government in preventing and prohibiting human trafficking is, predominately, the Government itself.”51
This problem, I believe, ultimately stems from the fact that officials are unwilling to acknowledge that contracting out logistics support to an offshore army of workers means that the military is responsible for the conditions under which this workforce is acquired and labors on its behalf. In this the military is similar to large U.S. corporations with extended offshore supply chains that try to evade responsibility for substandard labor conditions suffered by workers at the end of these chains. In both cases offshoring labor has transformed the workforce, from American to foreign. The consequence, as Maya Eichler observes, is that military contracting—like offshore manufacturing—depends on and reinforces global inequalities of citizenship that intersect with racial, class, and gendered inequality.52 When this is combined with subcontracting and extended labor supply chains that downsource risk and attenuate moral responsibility, it is not surprising that U.S. civilian and military officials’ response to cases of trafficking and other labor abuses has been so tepid. (p.128)
(13.) The name of the employee has been redacted to protect his identity. Copy of contract on file with the author.
(20.) See Wise 2013. For more on subcontracting and labor abuses, LeBaron 2014. The transference of risk onto workers—especially from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—can also be seen in the realm of private security contracting, not just logistics. For more on exploitative labor conditions for security contractors from the Global South, see Gallaher 2012; Chisholm 2014a; Eichler 2014; Thomas 2017.
(37.) See Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 52.222-50 Combating Trafficking in Persons at https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/48/52.222-50.
(38.) Carp 2007, 48.
(39.) Carp 2007, 48.
(47.) These quotes are excerpts from an email exchange between Embassy Baghdad foreign service officers Richard Albright and Alfred Anzaldua that can be found on pp. 58 and 60 of a batch of DoS documents released in response to an ACLU FOIA request. See https://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/humanrights/irap_foia_release_state_95-219.pdf.