Let me first set the stage before I share what I’m about to share – in order to complete most large-scale missions, it takes many hands to do so. Not only are the men and women who serve in uniform necessary, but so are countless “behind the scenes” civilians. What is traditionally not asked is how those civilians became a part of the mission.
In my years in the service, I never once considered asking. In my recent years on installations, I’ve never really even given this topic much thought. The topic? Could U.S. taxpayers be paying for human trafficking in order to staff positions necessary to complete the mission?
This Saturday, Sept. 20 at 7p ET/4p PT, Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” investigates the system that brings foreign laborers to work on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, and asks that very question: Could U.S. taxpayers be paying for human trafficking?
For those of you who may bristle at the Al Jazeera name, go into this with an open mind. I’ve had the opportunity to preview the segment and they approach this topic objectively.
In this special episode, correspondent Anjali Kamat first travels to Camp Marmal, the largest base in northern Afghanistan. “We could not do our mission without them,” says Lt. Colonel Paul Rodgers, the U.S. regional garrison commander for the base, referring to the contractor workers who provide dining, cleaning and other services on-site.
The episode highlights two American companies that manage the military’s facilities in Afghanistan: the Fluor Corporation and Dyncorp. Most of their employees, primarily Indians and Nepalis, work for smaller sub-contractors and travel to a war zone for the promise of a high salary.
In a lengthy investigation, the “Fault Lines” team reports that to obtain subcontractor jobs, workers paid fees equivalent of six months’ salary or more to recruiting agents. According to the U.S. State Department and the U.N., this is human trafficking – illegal under U.S. and international law.
The Al Jazeera team then visits the rural heartland of southern India and interviews former contract workers who say they were deceived and indebted by labor traffickers profiting from military contracts.
While the Department of Defense requires that contractors ask workers whether they paid illegal recruitment fees, these former contract workers tell “Fault Lines” they said nothing because they were afraid to lose their jobs.
“Fault Lines” also retraces the contract worker’s journey through Dubai and visits Sonapur, a labor camp home to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from South Asia.
As the segment reveals, “Dubai is critical. You’ll see most of the contractors have their headquarters and are incorporated in Dubai,” says former Army officer Sam MaCahon, who now campaigns to reform the military contracting system. “The men are traded and sold just like chattel; they’re things, they’re commodities to be used. The only one not making money is the worker providing the labor.”
Bottom line: I was troubled after watching this episode. I am supportive of companies making profit, but not through illegal measures. This exposé uncovers a system where subcontractors could be making anywhere between 70-300 percent profits off workers, and prime contractors like Fluor and Dyncorp may be incentivized by the U.S. government to use subcontractors that overcharge.
There is positive movement to correct these wrongs. In the last few years, the Pentagon, Congress and the Obama administration have all issued rules designed to stop trafficking on military contracts. But rules and laws are only effective if enforced. Why aren’t these rules being enforced?
For those of you who want to watch, Al Jazeera America is available around the U.S. on DirecTV Channel 347, Comcast Channel 125 in the Seattle Puget Sound area, Dish 215, AT&T U-verse Channel 1219, Verizon FiOS Channel 614, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, among others.
– By Michael Schindler
Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.