Abuses by protection contractors at U.S. army bases in Persian Gulf entice migrant staff, workers say

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Overseas staff for protection contractors on at the least 4 U.S. army bases within the Persian Gulf are trapped of their jobs by abusive employment practices that they are saying forestall them from returning residence and even in search of higher work within the area, greater than 30 present and former staff mentioned in interviews.

Most of the 1000’s of migrants employed on Persian Gulf bases have had their passports confiscated, been saddled with onerous money owed after paying unlawful recruitment charges or been denied “release papers” required below native legal guidelines, in keeping with the interviews as effectively courtroom information and authorities paperwork displaying that such abuses, which seem to violate U.S. laws, have been repeatedly flagged lately.

The businesses that present meals, restore automobiles and provide different providers to the U.S. army routinely flip down requests from civilian workers for launch papers they should depart their jobs, greater than a dozen staff instructed The Washington Submit and the Worldwide Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Below the strict labor legal guidelines of most international locations within the area, workers who depart jobs with out permission have been jailed for “absconding.” In a few of these international locations, notably Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, protection contractors maintain onto their staff’ passports, typically limiting the workers’ motion, staff mentioned.

Employment companies within the staff’ residence international locations, meantime, incessantly cost steep charges to put them in jobs abroad. The charges can run into the 1000’s of {dollars} and are sometimes financed with high-interest loans, requiring migrants who’re paid as little as $1 an hour to work for a number of years earlier than they’ve paid off their money owed, in keeping with 19 staff for 9 contractors and subcontractors within the Persian Gulf.

“Life is not easy,” mentioned a younger Bangladeshi meals providers employee 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 final identify just isn’t being printed to forestall retaliation by his employer, mentioned he was pressured to pay a $6,000 recruitment charge to get a job on the U.S. Military’s Camp Arifjan and needed to work two-and-a-half years to repay the mortgage his father had taken out to cowl the charge.

These practices are widespread amongst non-public employers within the Center East, the place the authorized standing of migrant laborers is routinely tied to that of their employer. However the abuses described by the employees would seem to violate U.S. laws towards human trafficking by authorities contractors and subcontractors. These federal acquisition laws ban the type of recruitment charges detailed by staff at U.S. army bases, search to bar involuntary servitude, which incorporates 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,” mentioned Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Protection Division spokesperson, after being offered with the employees’ accounts. “The Department continues to work diligently on combating human trafficking because these activities violate human rights and harm our national security mission.”

The employees interviewed for this story are among the many armies of women and men from Asia and Africa who do the handbook and semiskilled labor that retains U.S. army bases overseas operating day after day. The U.S. army operates from greater than a dozen bases and different installations within the Persian Gulf and neighboring Iraq and has used these places to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fight al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and oppose Iranian actions within the area.

The army has grown deeply depending on protection contractors and their legions of migrant hires. These staff journey to the Persian Gulf in search of employment alternatives important for supporting kinfolk again residence, although the pay is commonly comparatively low and the hours lengthy.

Most of these interviewed — just like the 1000’s of different civilian staff on army bases — are employed by regional subcontractors, which in flip primarily work for main American protection firms. These embrace Vectrus and Amentum, which grew out of the most important authorities contractor AECOM two years in the past and purchased protection companies DynCorp and PAE.

Prior to now 5 years, the Pentagon has responded to 176 reported situations of labor trafficking on army bases within the Persian Gulf and past, most often by requiring higher monitoring of employment practices, in keeping with State Division stories reviewed by NBC Information.

This story was produced as a part of a joint investigation by journalists from The Submit, ICIJ, NBC, WGBH Boston, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Heart for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Reporting Program on the College of California, Berkeley.

Launch papers and passports

A bus arrives at 4:30 a.m. at a labor camp south of Kuwait Metropolis to gather dozens of fatigued staff for his or her shifts on the U.S. Military’s Camp Arifjan. On solely a number of hours of sleep, they’re transported to the bottom about 45 minutes away, then queue up with tons of of others for safety checks.

The employees, primarily from South Asia, are employed as mechanics and laborers by Kuwait Sources Home (KRH), a big subcontractor for main protection companies at a number of American army bases within the Persian Gulf, together with U.S.-headquartered Vectrus and Amentum. Present and former KRH staff on bases in Kuwait and Qatar interviewed for this story reported incomes between $1.52 and $3.70 an hour, in keeping with calculations by ICIJ and The Submit based mostly on their month-to-month wages and hours labored.

Ten present and former staff mentioned many KRH workers can’t search better-paying jobs, or in some instances, even go residence, as a result of the corporate blocks them from leaving.

“It’s not a good life. There’s not much freedom,” mentioned a 38-year-old mechanic from India, who spoke on the situation that solely his nickname, Aryan, be printed for worry of retribution. He has labored for the corporate for six years and is able to transfer on. “I am not getting a release. I want to leave,” he mentioned, including, “There are better companies here I want to work for.”

The mechanic mentioned he and his colleagues have tried to alert managers at Vectrus, the protection agency he’s employed by KRH to work for, however they instructed him “they can’t interfere in my company.”

Requested by e-mail to touch upon particular allegations, together with that it denied staff’ freedom of motion, KRH responded, “We would like to assure you that all the allegations you stated in your email are incorrect.” The corporate didn’t provide additional specifics.

“Since day 1 of our operations, we have been the leader in honoring and abiding by Human Rights in every bit of our business practice. Since our core business is ‘Life Support and HR Solutions,’ Combating Trafficking in Persons has been an essential part of our practice,” the corporate mentioned. KRH, which stories using 10,000 staff throughout the area, added, “Over the years, we have accumulated a reputation that shines with pride on the level of ethical business practice we adopt, as we lead by example to the entire sector in the [Middle East] region.”

Mike Smith, a spokesman for Vectrus, mentioned, “At Vectrus, we value all people and treat them with dignity and respect. We follow all United States labor laws, the laws in the countries where we operate, and demand our subcontractors do the same.”

In interviews, six present and former workers at 5 protection contractors within the area mentioned their employers typically take possession of staff’ passports.

By confiscating staff’ id paperwork, contractors wield extra management over their workers and assure their obedience, mentioned Sam McCahon, a former federal prosecutor who spent 9 years within the Center East as a army contract legislation specialist and U.S. Military procurement fraud lawyer. “If you have my passport, I can’t go work for a competitor or anyone else. I have to stay with you,” McCahon mentioned.

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Even when they might maintain onto their passports, a number of workers mentioned they continue to be caught due to a requirement, below the so-called kafala system, that staff get hold of “release papers” from their employer earlier than transferring to a different job.

“The kafala system is abusive precisely because it grants such disproportionate power to employers over migrant workers,” mentioned Michael Web page, deputy director within the Center East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “When employers are allowed to confiscate a worker’s passport or deny a migrant worker the ability to change jobs, this undermines not only the worker’s power to decide where to work but even the ability to leave abusive situations. At its worst, this reality can even lead to situations of forced labor.”

Two years in the past, Qatar launched reforms stipulating that staff ought to preserve their passports in their very own possession and abolishing using launch papers. However contract staff in Qatar mentioned they’re nonetheless required to get permission from their present employer earlier than they will transfer to a brand new job.

“They always say we will provide your release papers soon, but they never do,” mentioned Sree Kumar from India, who labored for 4 years for KRH on the big Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. “One of my friends got a chance for a job with another company, but our company didn’t provide a release letter, and he lost it.”

Dilip Gurung, a 32-year-old warehouse specialist from Nepal, mentioned he needed to struggle to get permission from KRH, a subcontractor for Amentum in Qatar, earlier than he traveled residence in 2019 for emergency surgical procedure to take away a benign tumor from his head.

His requests for permission have been repeatedly rebuffed over a number of days, throughout which he was pressured to work regardless of excruciating ache, he mentioned. When he was lastly allowed to journey, he needed to take unpaid depart, he added.

“We have our passport all the time, as that is Amentum’s guideline,” mentioned Gurung. “But having our passports on hand doesn’t mean we are free to leave.”

‘Working in worry’: Some non-public contractors are accused of abusive labor practices on U.S. army bases

Exorbitant recruitment charges

Gurung’s difficulties started even earlier than he set foot in Qatar. After making use of for a job with KRH in 2016, he was ushered by an employment dealer right into a small workplace at a recruitment company within the outskirts of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, and instructed at hand over 150,000 Nepali rupees, or about $1,400 in money, he recounted. To get the contract, Gurung was required to pay a recruitment charge equal to 5 months of his wage as a instructor in Nepal.

“If you don’t pay, they will not send you overseas,” Gurung recalled. “Although I knew it wasn’t legal, I had no choice.”

He mentioned the recruiter pressured him to declare on video that he’d solely paid a small quantity in administrative charges, that are legally permissible in Nepal however capped at 10,000 Nepali rupees, or about $93 at the moment. Solely then was he given a job with KRH.

Charging recruitment charges of tons of, even 1000’s, of {dollars} is commonplace, staff mentioned. In interviews, 19 present and former staff at U.S. bases within the Persian Gulf reported paying charges starting from $250 to $6,000. Typically, the employees are compelled to promote private belongings, comparable to their automobiles, and take out high-interest loans to cowl the charges. Gurung mentioned he took out a mortgage with an annual rate of interest of 36%.

KRH mentioned allegations that its staff paid recruitment charges have been incorrect.

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Mohammed, the Bangladeshi meals providers employee, was 18 years previous when a recruiter required him to pay $6,000 for a job at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. He mentioned he and his shut co-workers for a Saudi Arabia-based contractor, Tamimi International, all needed to pay recruiting charges and Tamimi managers “told us not to tell people that we paid.”

To cowl the fee, his father, a retired farmer, took out a mortgage for $4,000 and cashed in his remaining retirement financial savings, Mohammed recalled. However his household believed it might all be value it. He mentioned the recruiter promised that Tamimi would pay about $1,300 a month.

As a substitute, when he arrived in Kuwait in 2017, he was instructed his beginning wage can be $260 a month, he recounted, forcing him to work 2½ years to pay again the mortgage.

Misfer al-Malki, supervisor of Tamimi’s human sources and administration division, mentioned the corporate seeks to conform totally with U.S. legal guidelines and laws and has a compliance degree that “meets and exceeds” its contract necessities.

“Tamimi has recruitment procedures and does not take money from staff. We do not deny that there are inappropriate recruitment procedures in the region and that is why we have to be vigilant, but we do everything we can to avoid our staff being caught by them,” he mentioned.

The U.S. Authorities Accountability Workplace has concluded that recruitment charges can put staff into “debt bondage,pressured to spend most of their wages paying off the loans and unable to give up probably exploitative jobs. GAO considers this a function of labor trafficking.

“We have very clear regulations now saying that you cannot charge recruitment fees,” mentioned Latesha Love, director of worldwide affairs and commerce on the GAO. “Holding passports and things of that nature are not something that can be done on contracts with our federal dollars.”

The GAO most not too long ago investigated working circumstances at abroad army bases final yr. The company, which is an investigative arm of Congress, referred to as on the Protection Division to deal with weaknesses in its oversight of contractors and its reporting of inner investigations into human trafficking performed between 2015 and 2020.

In keeping with 9 staff, American contractors on the army bases are conscious that their workers have been pressured to pay recruitment charges however haven’t tried to cease the observe.

“One day, we shared with our project manager that we had paid this fee, but he said [the company is] helpless,” mentioned Kumar, the previous employee at Al Udeid. “I think it’s a mutual understanding. The American managers know about the fee, and they say nothing. They avoid talking about it.”

McCahon, the previous army procurement fraud lawyer, mentioned that charging low-paid migrant staff recruitment charges for jobs on U.S. abroad army bases is an “institutionalized” enterprise observe.

“If that person is indebted to get the job, they’re more malleable, which means essentially, you can do anything you want to them. You can cheat them, abuse them, anything,” McCahon mentioned. The U.S. Structure, he famous, “prohibits indentured servitude. Yet, we’re not only tolerating it. The U.S. taxpayer actually pays the trafficker.”

Federal acquisition laws require contractors to undertake measures aimed toward stopping recruitment brokers and subcontractors from participating in human trafficking and terminate relationships with enterprise companions in breach of anti-trafficking legal guidelines.

Love, the GAO official, mentioned Pentagon contracting officers are presupposed to be in search of indicators of abuses, comparable to recruitment charges and the confiscation of id paperwork. In observe, nevertheless, there’s little enforcement of the laws, she mentioned.

“Often, federal agencies have very little visibility into what’s happening at the subcontractor level because the subcontractors don’t report directly back to the U.S. government,” Love mentioned.

Schwegman, the Protection Division spokesperson, mentioned the Pentagon had taken steps lately to deal with labor trafficking, as an illustration by including coaching for procurement personnel and highlighting for army companies and instructions their function in reporting employment abuses. She mentioned these measures got here on high of steps, taken in 2013 in response to reported abuses, designed to publicize staff’ rights and improve oversight.

There was no lack of public warnings about potential employment abuses by army contractors and their subcontractors.

In 2017, as an illustration, U.S. army investigators examined allegations that Tamimi, which was employed to feed army personnel in Kuwait, had violated anti-human trafficking guidelines in its pay and employment practices, and proposed barring the corporate from receiving future contracts.

Whereas Tamimi rejected the allegations, it signed a compliance settlement with the U.S. Military agreeing, partly, to enhance its coaching packages and rent an unbiased compliance monitor.

And in March, a U.S. District Court docket decide in Maryland dominated that 29 Kuwaiti translators might go ahead with a lawsuit claiming that two army contractors at present owned by Amentum have been accountable for an array of abusive practices — together with confiscating the linguists’ passports and aiding in a “Kuwait government manhunt” that put them liable to arrest in the event that they tried to give up their jobs and depart the nation.

Amentum didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark. In courtroom filings within the translators’ lawsuit, the Amentum models deny wrongdoing.

A number of the oldest considerations return to the years following the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, when the U.S. army dramatically escalated its presence within the area. In 2006, for instance, authorities in India barred Kuwait & Gulf Hyperlink Holding Co. — a Kuwait-registered logistics and transportation agency working on bases within the Persian Gulf — from hiring Indian workers. Indian authorities claimed KGL had lured staff to work in war-torn Iraq by falsely promising they have been going to get jobs in Kuwait, in keeping with a U.S. Senate doc.

KGL didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.

Immediately, KGL’s staff are once more sharing complaints in regards to the firm, which continues to obtain massive U.S. army contracts. In interviews, three present and former KGL staff mentioned the employment companies that positioned them with KGL pressured them to pay unlawful recruitment charges. Two of them mentioned that KGL additionally has prevented some low-paid laborers from leaving their jobs.

“People have been stuck there for years because they can’t get their release papers. The company doesn’t want to pay new laborers more money,” mentioned Anil Lama, a former I.T. employee for KGL at an American army set up in Kuwait.

A 32-year-old Indian man, who mentioned he has labored for KGL as a driver for 5 years after paying a $1,250 recruitment charge, defined he was afraid to ask the corporate for his launch papers as a result of such requests by his co-workers had already been denied.

“Some of my colleagues have completed eight years of work. Even then, release papers are not given,” he mentioned. “There are many problems.”

Agustin Armendariz and Emilia Díaz Struck of ICIJ; Yousef H. Alshammari of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism; and Andy Lehren, Molly Boigon, Laura Strickler, Anna Schecter and Courtney Kube of NBC contributed to this text.

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