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Workers’ abuse on US bases in Gulf


Foreign workers for defence contractors on at least four U.S. military bases in the Arabian Gulf are trapped in their jobs by abusive employment practices that they say prevent them from returning home or even looking for better work in the region, more than 30 current and former workers said in interviews.

Many of the thousands of migrants employed on Arabian Gulf bases have had their passports confiscated, been saddled with onerous debts after paying illegal recruitment fees or been denied “release papers” required under local laws, according to the interviews as well as court records and government documents showing that such abuses, which appear to violate U.S. regulations, have been repeatedly flagged in recent years.

The companies that provide food, repair vehicles and supply other services to the U.S. military routinely turn down requests from civilian employees for release papers they need to leave their jobs, more than a dozen workers told the the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Washington Post. Under the strict labor laws of most countries in the region, employees who leave jobs without permission have been jailed for “absconding.” In some of these countries, notably Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, defense contractors hold onto their workers’ passports, often restricting their freedom of movement, workers said.

Employment agencies in the workers’ home countries, meantime, frequently charge steep fees to place them in jobs overseas. The fees can run into the thousands of dollars and are often financed with high-interest loans, requiring migrants who are paid as little as $1 an hour to work for several years before they’ve paid off their debts, according to 19 current or former workers for nine contractors and subcontractors in the Persian Gulf.

“Life is not easy,” said a young Bangladeshi food services worker named Mohammed, who works on a base in Kuwait. “My family has problems, and it’s just me working, and I have parents, two brothers, and one of my sisters to take care of.” Mohammed, whose last name is not being published to prevent retaliation by his employer, said he was forced to pay a $6,000 recruitment fee to get a job at the U.S. Army’s Camp Arifjan and had to work two-and-a-half years to pay off the loan his father had taken out to cover the fee.

These practices are widespread among private employers in the Middle East, where the legal status of migrant laborers is routinely tied to that of their employer. But the abuses described by the workers would appear to violate U.S. regulations against human trafficking by government contractors and subcontractors. These federal acquisition regulations ban the kind of recruitment fees detailed by workers at U.S. military bases, seek to bar involuntary servitude, which includes confiscation of passports, and requires contractors to police their subcontractors.

“The Department of Defense promotes the U.S. government’s zero tolerance policy on trafficking in persons,” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson, after being presented with the workers’ accounts. “The Department continues to work diligently on combating human trafficking because these activities violate human rights and harm our national security mission.”

The workers interviewed for this story are among the armies of men and women from Asia and Africa who do the manual and semiskilled labor that keeps U.S. military bases abroad running day after day. The U.S. military operates from more than a dozen bases and other installations in the Persian Gulf and neighboring Iraq and has used these locations to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and oppose Iranian activities in the region.

The military has grown deeply dependent on defense contractors and their legions of migrant hires. These workers travel to the Persian Gulf seeking employment opportunities vital for supporting relatives back home, though the pay is often relatively low and the hours long.

Most of those interviewed — like the thousands of other civilian workers on military bases — are employed by regional subcontractors, which in turn mainly work for major American defense companies. These include Vectrus and Amentum, which grew out of the major government contractor AECOM two years ago and acquired defense firms DynCorp and PAE.

In the past five years, the Pentagon has responded to 176 reported instances of labor trafficking on military bases in the Persian Gulf and beyond, in most cases by requiring better monitoring of employment practices, according to State Department reports reviewed by NBC News.

This story was produced as part of the Trafficking Inc. investigation by journalists from ICIJThe PostNBCWGBH BostonArab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

Also published on Medium.

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