Twelve years into the Afghan War, the military isn’t the only force on the ground. Military contractors are supplying a growing list of needs, and they’re relying heavily on the labor of what are known as third-country nationals. These migrant workers aren’t from the United States, nor are they local labor; instead, they’re recruited, often from Southeast Asia, and brought to Afghanistan specifically to work on military bases and in other support settings. One reason military contractors prefer them to other forms of labor? They have fewer labor protections, and they’re much less expensive.
This has become a recipe for disaster in Afghanistan, where third-country nationals are facing exploitative working conditions in bases across the country, where almost all support work is performed by non-military personnel and the military leaves hiring and human resources practices up to individual private contractors. With contractors vying to bring in the lowest bids, shortcuts on labor costs are often seen as a quick and easy way to stay competitive. One of the easiest ways to do that is to turn away from potentially expensive labor pools and look further afield, targeting impoverished regions of the world in particular for people who are desperate for work.
It starts with recruitment. Recruiters reach out to people in their home communities, promising economic opportunities in Afghanistan. After paying for transportation, recruitment fees and other costs, people may discover that they need to work for up to a year simply to repay the expense of being brought onto base to work. Even within third-country nationals, though, there’s a hierarchy of workers that comes to the fore, with European workers being treated with more deference and respect than their Southeast Asian counterparts, who do the filthiest work for the lowest pay, and in the most abusive and dangerous conditions.
Once on base, third-country nationals cook, clean, do construction, manage laundry and more. They often work for 12 hours a day without breaks, and some aren’t allowed to use their cell phones to contact home, sealing them in a vacuum of labor abuse. Some are not permitted to speak to military personnel, and on some bases, contact between third-country nationals from different regions is also limited. Cutting off contact with the outside world is a common practice in abusive labor settings, where contractors and employers want to prevent employees from reaching out for help or informing people about their working conditions. Limiting on-base contact also makes it difficult for workers to organize and exchange information.
Salaries range from $400-$800 a month, far less than locals and US citizens would get in the same setting, and they’re often much lower than recruits were promised, investigators for Al Jazeera determined. Meanwhile, contractors wash their hands of the employment process by outsourcing it, in a fascinatingly byzantine process. Because military contractors cannot officially charge recruitment fees, they outsource hiring to a third party, who can charge such fees, creating a system of bribes and kickbacks that drives the labor pool.
This isn’t the first time the US military has been involved in allegations of labor abuse. Despite media coverage of labor abuses on military bases in war zones, the practice appears widespread. The Department of Defense clearly needs to keep a better eye on its military contractors if it wants to avoid being involved in unethical labor practices.
Photo credit: DVIDSHUB.