End Contractor Mistreatment

by Joshua Foust on 6/4/2011 · 7 comments

A few years back, when I was deployed to Afghanistan, I wrote a tiny bit about the workers who make the U.S. bases that pepper the region run smoothly, fueled on fried chicken, Subway, Burger King, and Baskin Robbins. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have struck up a conversation with the affable Nepalese men who run the barbershop on Ali al Saleem Air Base in Kuwait.

In the New Yorker this week, Sarah Stillman has written a rather penetrating look into the conditions these workers face. It’s almost sad to admit that many of the horrors she recounts—food riots, sexual abuse, appalling living conditions, and recruitment fraud—sound familiar if you’ve interacted with some of these workers.

AAFES, the organization that runs these service contracts, looks especially bad: they don’t respond to complaints, and they seem unaware of the problems many of these workers have faced in serving the U.S. personnel on these bases. I remember going into the AAFES-run salon on Bagram Air Field, in 2009. It was staffed mostly with Kyrgyz women who, yes, made a lot more money than they would have in Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, they also faced surprisingly terms on their employment: no days off for years at a time (literally working 12 hours a day, seven days a week), at maybe $500 a month. They were paid better than in Kyrgyzstan, but I still got the feeling they were being exploited.

The Indians who ran the nearby nearby Green Mountain Coffeeshop—where my colleagues and I spent many an afternoon sipping espresso and pondering how to “fix” the war—were often surly and made terrible drinks. I thought it was the constant lines, the really obnoxious European soldiers shouting at them, or having to work near the line of portajohns that always smelt of rotting shit. Maybe, just maybe, it was the recruitment fraud that lied to them about working in Dubai, or maybe it was the low wages, or maybe it was their living conditions.

When I spent time at bases away from the major transit areas like Bagram or Kandahar, it was difficult to get a read on the shop workers. I suppose I never spent the time there to really learn (Stillman focuses almost entirely on Iraq, which did have the highest number of workers and the most publicly reported abuses; I hope she is able, perhaps in a book, to also shed light on the workers in Afghanistan). But there was a definite segregation at play: the soldiers almost never interacted with foreigners aside from their interpreters (who were relegated to a separate housing area anyway). It was difficult to build friendships with any of them as a result. You just couldn’t find them.

Camp followers are as old as war, and I think we tend to overemphasize how pernicious the reliance on civilian workers to a war can be in a theoretical sense. Whenever you have an army deployed in any great number for any great period of time you will also have abuse, prostitutes, drugs, human trafficking, and any number of horrible things. At most large U.S. bases in Afghanistan, you can find all of these things: construction workers cooking crystal meth in their isolated housing camp with the cheap and abundant pseudoephedrine cold medicine available at the Base Exchange, Korean prostitutes running a kimchi house on Disney Drive, Egyptian medical workers selling cocaine outside their hospital, and abused women at massage parlors trying, desperately, to make enough money in tips to make their years of indentured servitude somehow worth the stress to their families. In their more honest moments, older U.S. servicemen will reminisce at the government-funded “comfort women” who used to frequent the bases in Southeast Asia. It is just another reason war is a horrible thing to be avoided whenever possible.

I wish I had an answer to this problem. It is appalling. I can remember laughing at the briefings we had to sit through in 2008 about human trafficking; it seemed so out-of-the-blue, so typical of the over-protective military bureaucracy. There is obviously a reason for these briefings to take place. The problem is that the people who need to see them—the subcontractors who run recruitment in other countries and then administer the workers once they’re deployed—almost never do. That needs to change, along with the ludicrous (and by now almost clichéd) lack of oversight of U.S. contractors.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 7 comments }

DD June 5, 2011 at 5:17 am

Good post. I wonder how the 2 star “commanding” general of AAFES sleeps at night. It is amazing the level of segregation that exists on these bases, actually no, it’s not. If you live in a major city, what was the color of the skin of the person who made your sandwich last time you were at subway, mcdonalds, etc? It is sad that this environment places base workers at higher risks for abuse, but really this is an extension of a habit we already have in the US. I don’t think any base employees routinely show up in shipping containers, and the bases are not so big that the occasional security check cannot uproots things, (like the 20 masseuses being forced to live in one small living quarters at KAF a while back). So I guess try to tip as well as you can, and consider writing Major General Keith Lee Thurgood a nastygram.

David June 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm

No, AAFES doesn’t look bad, you look bad with your biased and inaccurate reporting! I was living in Kyrgyzstan in the time frame you mentioned and I personally knew 2 women that were working at the Bagram salon. I saw them when they came back to do new work visas, they both loved it and couldn’t wait to get back there. Seems the only thing you got right was the money part. They made $500 a month when at home they would make $170 monthly if they were lucky and could even find a job! That’s 300% more than back home and they would be happy to work 12 hours to get it! And please explain your statement of “no days off for years at a time”. That statement alone should enable readers to see how ridiculous your claims are. Have you ever hear of a “work Visa” or know how time limited a work visa is from Kyrgyzstan? All the things you mentioned-drugs, prostitution, human traffcking, these are every day happenings in Kyrgyzstan. You can even add bride kidnapping to the list. These things are not good in any place or any country. But, just what are you trying to compare in your bleeding heart, finger pointing rant? And just what do you mean by, “In their more honest moments, older U.S. servicemen will reminisce at the government-funded “comfort women” who used to frequent the bases in Southeast Asia.” Your attacking contractors is not enough, so now you insult servicemen too? Lack of oversight of U.S. contractors is a problem, as is the lack of oversight from your editor, as is your lack of ethics!

E2 June 7, 2011 at 3:35 am

Dunno about the Kyrgyz women, but when I stopped through Kuwait last year, I struck up a conversation with a Thai woman at Ali Al Salem who worked in the beauty parlor. She was on a 24 month tour, with no leave back to Thailand for the duration. She was a single mother of a 6 year old. I can’t imagine being stuck on that crappy base for more than a week, let alone 2 years. Plus being separated from a child for two years straight? The money is good, but you could tell she was heartbroken.

marc June 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm

At one point in Iraq enterprising human traffickers would bring in huge numbers of TCN’s who didn’t even have a job waiting. They would live like feral cats on the outskirts of U.S. bases in case there was a sudden need for more workers or any of the current workers complained about wages or working conditions and needed to be replaced. I have never heard any mention if the U.S. government has a plan or even any interest in whether the hundreds of thousands of third world workers brought in by contractors even have the financial means to get home now that we don’t need so many of them.

bat dong san June 5, 2011 at 11:09 pm

mass scoial..i love my peace country anyway
thi truong bat dong san

passivenicheprofits June 6, 2011 at 10:57 am

Too many people chaing not enough jobs.

Swen Johnson June 7, 2011 at 6:25 am

Its a tough call: if one says the TCN’s are being taken advantage of, another will reply that they are better off than in their home countries. But, does it make it right then to hire them when the conditions are akin to exploitation with regard to Western standards? Even if the TCN’s know what they are getting into (clearly, its all wrong if they don’t) and choose the conditions because of the relative value it provides them, it sure seems wrong that the profit would go into the pockets of the Western-advantaged (advantage in terms of material weath) employers only. The whole world needs fixing, that’s for sure.

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