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War Workers: Vulnerable Foreign Laborers Swindled & Exploited to Toil on U.S. Bases in Afghanistan

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A new investigation by Al Jazeera America looks at the human trafficking system that brings tens of thousands of foreign laborers to work on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. “America’s War Workers” examines how these laborers regularly end up deceived and indebted, victims of local recruiters who charge thousands of dollars and offer false promises of high-paying jobs. They are easy prey for labor traffickers who profit from military contracts. We are joined by Al Jazeera America correspondent Anjali Kamat and producer Sam Black, whose investigation spanned five months and several countries.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. America’s War Workers. That’s the name of a new investigation by Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines examining an underreported aspect of America’s longest war: the system that brings foreign laborers to work on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. Today there are approximately 40,000 foreign contract workers on bases in the U.S. military’s Central Command. These workers leave their homes in countries such as India and Nepal to enter a war zone, serving U.S. troops as cooks, cleaners, doing laundry, working as construction workers. However, Fault Lines discovered these laborers regularly end up deceived and indebted, victims of local recruiters who charge thousands of dollars and offer false promises of high-paying jobs. They’re easy prey for labor traffickers who profit from military contracts. In this clip from the new Fault Lines investigation, America’s War Workers, Al Jazeera correspondent Anjali Kamat speaks to a worker who goes by the name “Ravi.”

ANJALI KAMAT: Ravi told us he was tricked into working in Afghanistan for a salary that was less than half of what he was promised. It started when a friend back home introduced Ravi to a recruiting agent, who told him that for a hefty fee he could get a job in Afghanistan working for DynCorp. He would fly to Dubai, where he would connect with DynCorp and then travel to the base.

RAVI: And he said that he’s going to send me for the DynCorp, and I will get basically $1,200 USD per month.

ANJALI KAMAT: But there was a catch: The job at DynCorp didn’t actually exist. Instead, the agent housed Ravi in a work camp in Dubai. After three weeks, the agent told him that, for an additional fee, he could get Ravi a job with a subcontractor, Ecolog.

RAVI: When I got to Ecolog to get my contract and I saw my contract, there was only $500.

ANJALI KAMAT: So you were promised a job at DynCorp.

RAVI: Yeah, he—

ANJALI KAMAT: Twelve hundred dollars.

RAVI: Yeah.

ANJALI KAMAT: And then you got a job at Ecolog—

RAVI: Yeah.

ANJALI KAMAT: —for $500.

RAVI: Yeah, and I told that agent—I called him, and I said that I want to come back. I don’t want to go for $500, because it’s not enough for me. They said, “I don’t want to give you back.” So I did not have another choice. So at least $500 is better than nothing. So that’s why I came.

ANJALI KAMAT: How much money did you pay the agent?

RAVI: I paid totally $4,000, U.S. dollar, and when I came first, I got $500. You can calculate how much I need to work to get that money back. It’s at least eight months, and the interest, so it’s like one year.

ANJALI KAMAT: Ravi had been recruited under fraudulent terms that compelled him to work for a year simply to pay off his debt. According to the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, this is human trafficking.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from the new Al Jazeera Fault Lines investigation, America’s War Workers, about migrant laborers on U.S. military bases.

For more, we’re joined by the two journalists who did the investigation. Samuel Black is a producer at Al Jazeera, and Anjali Kamat is a correspondent. They also co-wrote an article that accompanies the film, called “After 12 Years of War, Labor Abuses Still Rampant on U.S. Bases in Afghanistan.”

Welcome, Sam. Welcome, Anjali. And great to be with you again, Anjali, former Democracy Now! producer. Anjali, talk about this investigation that you did.

ANJALI KAMAT: So, we did a five-month investigation. I mean, I think one thing to realize is that this isn’t new. For over the past 10 years, the U.S. military has been systematically privatizing more and more of its functions, particularly logistics. And we’ve seen this in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But what’s interesting is there has been a realization and a recognition at the highest levels that workers are being trafficked. The lowest-wage jobs on these bases have been filled by so-called third-country nationals. They’re usually workers from Asia and Africa, different countries, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there was a recognition in September 2012. President Obama signed an executive order banning the use of fees on military contracts. Congress also passed a law banning the use of unreasonably high fees.

So we wanted to look into this issue and see if this was continuing. So, my colleague Sam and other colleagues at Al Jazeera, we basically contacted a lot of workers, current and former workers in Afghanistan, to see what their experiences were. And then we traveled to the bases in Afghanistan and to India to get a sense of what their experiences were. And we spoke to 75 workers. And of the 75 workers we spoke to, 90 percent of them had paid fees. And we’re talking fees in the range of $1,000 to $5,000. And these are workers, in the case of Afghanistan today, they’re primarily coming from India and Nepal. And they’re coming from jobs, previous jobs, that had paid something like $100 or $200 a month maximum. So they’ve all had to take out enormous loans to pay these fees, predatory loans at interest rates of 35 to 40 percent sometimes. So they’re indebted. And, you know, what you see in the film is a story of how there’s—they move through multiple layers of being deceived.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Sam, they go, let’s say, from southern India, where you also went, to—they’re taken to Dubai? And explain what happens next.

SAM BLACK: That’s right, exactly. Well, in India, these are mostly men who often have no income or very low income, and so they’re desperately looking for work overseas. And there’s a history of men from India and Nepal and the Philippines being—going to work on U.S. military bases. In some cases, their father or their uncle has done this, their brother. And the reason why they end up going through Dubai is because that’s the stopping-off point where the recruiters send them, where they’re supposed to meet the representatives from the subcontractor, who is really their employer.

The key thing to remember here is that it’s a supply chain. And it starts with the Department of Defense, which is the entity, of course, that’s operating these bases in Afghanistan and Iraq for the last 10 years, and elsewhere in Central Command. The Department of Defense then has contracted the—has asked companies, private companies—in Afghanistan, it’s two companies, Fluor Corporation and DynCorp International—to manage the bases in Afghanistan. But those companies, in turn, then turn around and subcontract typically 75 percent of the labor on those bases to subcontractors, which are mostly based in the Persian Gulf and the United Arab Emirates, Dubai.

AMY GOODMAN: In this clip from America’s War Workers, Anjali, you speak with Sam McMahon—McCahon, who is a former Army Judge Advocate General officer who’s pushing for reforming the military contracting system.

ANJALI KAMAT: Prime contractors like Fluor could hire workers directly for less. But the way the system is set up, they actually have an incentive to use subcontractors that overcharge. That’s because the government has agreed to reimburse prime contractors for all of their costs and then pay them a percentage of that total as a fixed profit.

SAM McCAHON: So the economic advantage is to incur as many costs as you can legitimately do so. The prime contractors make millions of dollars in additional profits by subcontracting it out.

ANJALI KAMAT: So the U.S. government is subsidizing human trafficking?

SAM McCAHON: No, we’re paying for it directly. This is the only form of human trafficking where the taxpayer directly pays the human trafficker.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about, Anjali, what he is saying here. He’s a former JAG officer.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, and Sam McCahon is someone who’s been looking at this issue, tracking it quite carefully for the past six, seven years. And, you know, what he talks about is how this is the only form of human trafficking that’s directly subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. And we’re talking $53.6 billion since 2001. That’s how much taxpayer money has gone into this contracting system. We don’t know how much of it has been wasted, how much of it has gone in different places.

Sam, Sam Black, my colleague, was just explaining the way the supply chain works. And when you look at it, you see that every single person in the supply chain makes money except for the worker. So what we found in the film is that, you know, workers pay these huge fees, enormous fees, to their recruiting agents. And recruiting agents are a key part of this system. And it’s not something the U.S. military invented, but they bought into a system, an existing system that’s prevalent in the Persian Gulf countries, to bring labor from South Asia, cheap labor.

AMY GOODMAN: So if you have one of these workers that pays $5,000, and he’s told, “Well, you know, you’ll make it back quickly—


AMY GOODMAN: —”because you’ll have a very high-paying job,” but then he gets to Afghanistan, and he’s told $500—


AMY GOODMAN: —he will get a month, that in order to raise that, he’s going to have to be working for a year, because then he has to pay back this interest rate of like 25 or 30 percent.

ANJALI KAMAT: And that’s if he gets to Afghanistan. I mean, we met so many workers who were warehoused in Dubai for months. And so, while they are being warehoused, they’re just waiting in these very squalid labor camps that—we visited one of these labor camps in Dubai. It’s called Sonapur, which means “City of Gold,” which is also what Dubai is known as, but this is—in Hindi, it’s called Sonapur, and it’s this city of 300,000 South Asian workers—who are building the Gulf economies, right? And this is where these workers are also warehoused. They’re kept there, sometimes for months on end, waiting to be sent to work, to Afghanistan or, previously, to Iraq. And they’re not getting paid. They’re staying in small rooms, sometimes with 10 to 40 other people in the room, getting very little food. And while they’re not getting paid, they’re not able to send money back home, so that the interest on that loan is just getting higher and higher. And then the pressure to take a job, even if it’s much lower-paying than what they were originally promised, is that much higher.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from your piece, America’s War Workers. This is an agent who recruits workers for Ecolog and Supreme Group, two contractors in Afghanistan.

ANJALI KAMAT: I asked him about his contract with Ecolog, and he told me something incredible: Ecolog does not pay him any money directly. The money he makes comes entirely from the fees paid by job candidates. And, he explained, subcontractors take a cut from those fees.

RECRUITER: There are some of the companies, like Ecolog and others there, we have only an agreement with them—


RECRUITER: —that they will pay us $300 per person.


RECRUITER: But in fact they are not paying anything for us. That is just to show for the main contractor.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, so it would be a no-fee contract.

RECRUITER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, because they are not allowed to charge any money for the worker. So, there are some companies which they are charging $100, $200, also from the agencies.


This agent even offered to pay me money if we hired workers from his camp, $100 to $200 for each worker we could find a job for in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Anjali, explain where you met with him. You’ve got this shaky camera work, because you secretly recorded this conversation.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah. So, Sam and I posed as representatives of a fictitious subcontracting company based in the U.S., and we said that we wanted to expand our business in military contracting overseas. So we set up a meeting with him. We got his contact from one of the workers we had met in Afghanistan. He had recruited him. And we, you know, just asked him what this business model is like and just asked very simple questions. You know, “If you provide workers to Ecolog and Supreme, you know, where do you house these workers?” And he said, “Oh, in Sonapur, in a labor camp outside of Dubai.”

And we said, “OK, you know, how much—how much is it going to cost? If we’re going to hire you to bring workers for us, how much do we have to pay you?” And he basically said, “Nothing. You know, on paper, I say that you pay me $300, but really, I’ll pay you,” because the way it works is that each recruiting agent wants the subcontractor to hire workers from his pool of workers that they’ve trafficked from India or Nepal. They want those workers to be hired, because they’ve gotten all their money from the recruitment fees that the workers give them. So they don’t need any additional money from the subcontractor. In fact, they give bribes to representatives of subcontracting companies to hire their workers.

AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like, Sam, there is a lot of deniability here on the part of the Pentagon. But they have to know these workers come from somewhere.

SAM BLACK: Yeah, I mean, there’s—the Pentagon, but not just the Pentagon, the prime contractors, Fluor and DynCorp, are insulated from this behavior. And it’s set up purposely to insulate them from this behavior. The U.S. Department of Defense depends on, and over the last 10 years has depended on, thousands, hundreds of thousands of these low-paid workers, and—but with the system they’ve set up, they’re insulated. And, you know, what’s important here is that the money is going the opposite way that you expect: It’s going up the supply chain. The people are paying to work, and the people who are recruiting are paying to recruit. It’s just kind of bizarre. And the people that are making the most profit are essentially rent seeking on the fact that they have the opportunity to offer the job. And it’s because they’re essentially hooked up to the hose of government money that they can do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain that, and explain what President Obama said would change, Anjali.

ANJALI KAMAT: So, in the executive order of September 2012, President Obama basically bans outright recruitment fees on military contracts.


ANJALI KAMAT: Because there is an understanding that this fits into the definition of human trafficking, which is illegal under U.S. law and international law. And there’s been, you know, a lot of journalistic work and investigations within the military that have looked into this since 2006, and there’s been an acknowledgment that this is happening. It’s not something new. But what’s astounding is that even though this executive order happened, Congress also passed a law banning—you know, acknowledging that this was happening—they didn’t ban recruitment fees outright, but banned what they called unreasonable recruitment fees. And that’s obviously open to interpretation.

And what we heard from a lot of workers is that, increasingly, they are being asked by military personnel on the bases if they paid a recruitment fee. But what’s interesting is that they’re just being asked by someone, “Did you pay a recruitment fee?” Now, remember, these workers have paid so much money, they’re taking out this enormous loan, they’re terrified that if they tell them, “Yes, I paid a recruitment fee”—they’ve finally gotten to Afghanistan, they finally have the chance to make a little bit of money, and if they say, “Yes, we did pay,” they’re terrified they’re just going to be sent back home.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Arun Pandian.

ANJALI KAMAT: So, Arun Pandian was a young man we met. We went to two villages in southern India, in Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state, in an area that’s a very rich agricultural area, but where farming incomes have dropped very dramatically in the past decade, which is why a lot of people from there have sought to leave India or leave that area looking for work. So these two villages that we went to, Govindnagaram and Odaipatti, have sent—people there claim that they’ve sent very large numbers of people to both Iraq and Afghanistan. So, Arun Pandian was a young boy. He grew up hearing stories from his uncle and his friends and everyone in the village, you know, of how they had all gone and worked with the U.S. military. And for a teenage boy, this sounded very exciting.

So, when he was 20, he was offered a job by an agent, a recruitment agent, who said, you know, “If you pay us a little bit of money, we can get you a job with a subcontractor called Supreme in Afghanistan.” So he took out a loan for $2,500, paid the agent $2,500. And this is in South India. He was told to travel to the Delhi, which is the capital, in northern India, and kept there for several weeks, told that, “Yes, you’ll be sent. You’ll be sent. You’ll be sent to Dubai. You’ll be sent to Afghanistan very soon. Just wait.” He’s kept in an apartment with about 15 other men who are all in the same position. And ultimately, he’s told, “No, there’s no job. Just go back.”

He doesn’t get his money back. He’s still in debt. He’s still trying to pay his debts back. And what’s interesting is that the recruitment agent in this case actually gave him a receipt, you know, because within India there are also laws about, you know, using only registered agents. But what’s interesting is there’s only about, you know, less than 2,000 agents that are actually registered, whereas when you look at the actual number of agents and sub-agents across the country, it runs into the tens of thousands, and most of them are unlicensed. So he got a receipt, but only for a very small portion of what he actually paid.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Rajesh Kumar?

ANJALI KAMAT: Rajesh was another man we met in Govindnagaram, and he was interesting because he had actually gone—he ended up going to Afghanistan, and he had come back. He worked for—also for Supreme with DynCorp. DynCorp is the prime contractor in this case. He was shuttled through five different agents. He was sent to three different cities in India and then to Dubai. In Dubai, he was made to wait for three months in a small room with 40 other people, given very little food. And they kept saying, “We’re going to get you a job. We’re going to get you a job. Just wait.” But nothing happened. So, finally, he went to his agent. He heard that the agents were sending people back to India, saying, “Oh, you know what? It’s not working out. Just go back.” And he couldn’t afford to do that. He had put his house up. He had taken out a loan. He was on the verge of losing everything. So he threatened his agent. He said, “I’m going to commit suicide or call the police. You know, I can’t take it. You have to send me.” So, finally, they sent him to Afghanistan for a much, much lower pay than he had asked for originally.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to one last clip in America’s War Workers where we meet a former cook with the U.S. military named Ganesan Subbaiah. He sold his father’s farmland and his mother’s jewelry to pay an agent for a job on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. But after he arrived, he was told in Dubai he would be going to an American base in Djibouti for a much lower salary. The film ends with his final thoughts on his ordeal.

GANESAN SUBBAIAH: [translated] There’s no chance of me going back, because I’ve already been cheated by these agents, and they don’t pay what they promised. I couldn’t stand it there. I put up with it for nine months. When I left there, I cursed the place. To be honest, I wished the camp would burn to the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Samuel Black, the Pentagon’s response?

SAM BLACK: We’ve received no response from the Pentagon as of yet. I mean, I think what’s remarkable is that over the last 10 years, there hasn’t been a single contractor or subcontractor that’s been suspended from one of these contracts, been terminated. There’s been no prosecutions, not even a civil action directed at one of these companies. And as Anjali said, in 2006—this has been reported since 2006. And, you know, we had limited resources. We were able to go to a base. We were able to communicate with people in India. And it wasn’t that hard for us to find 90 percent of the people we talked to had paid fees.

AMY GOODMAN: DynCorp and Fluor—


AMY GOODMAN: —are the two multinational corporations, who get how much?

ANJALI KAMAT: So, they get—because of the type of contract they have, they get whatever the subcontractors are charging them, plus—

AMY GOODMAN: But they’ve been paid over billions.

ANJALI KAMAT: —$53.6 billion, overall, not just DynCorp and Fluor.

SAM BLACK: That also includes KBR. KBR is actually the prime contractor that was—managed the Iraq War and is still in Bahrain. It’s just not in Afghanistan. So, actually, it’s the biggest player of them all.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both. Really a remarkable piece. Samuel Black, producer at Al Jazeera, and Anjali Kamat, correspondent. They have worked on this piece for five months for Fault Lines. It’s called America’s War Workers, about migrant laborers on U.S. military bases. When we come back, the latest from the elections in El Salvador, still too close to call. Stay with us.

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