Contractors Abuse Foreigners Who Staff U.S. Wars

An article in the latest issue of The New Yorker focuses on the mistreatment of foreign workers on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporter Sarah Stillman tells Mary Louise Kelly that workers are enticed overseas by shady contractors, and when the U.S. draws down operations, they're laid off but given no return ticket home.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Now to a story about an invisible army - the foreign workers who staff American wars. More than 70,000 cooks, cleaners, beauticians, fast food clerks, and others, service U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. They come from some of the world's poorest countries.

And as reporter Sarah Stillman writes, quote, "They're employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law." Stillman spent a year investigating the story for The New Yorker magazine.

Sarah Stillman, welcome.

Ms. SARAH STILLMAN (The New Yorker): Thanks.

KELLY: Let me start by asking about the women that you open your story with. You tell the story of 10 women - they are all beauticians from Fiji - who were recruited for jobs in Dubai. Or so they thought. What happened?

Ms. STILLMAN: Well, I met the women on a military base in northwest Iraq in 2008. And I'd noticed there was a beauty salon on the base where these women were giving manicures and pedicures and facials to U.S. soldiers.

And I started chatting with them about, you know, how they wound up in Iraq. And it turns out they'd been approached by recruiters who promised them great jobs in Dubai at a nice - in a hotel salon. And instead when they got there they were told, actually it turns out there is no job for you in Dubai; instead you're heading to a U.S. military base in Iraq.

And so the women were terrified, but they didn't know quite what else to do. And they found themselves scattered to three or four different military bases across the country.

KELLY: Did they have any choice about that final leg once they found out actually you're headed for Iraq?

Ms. STILLMAN: Yeah, their predicament was complicated. I mean, it wasn't the classic human trafficking story where they were, you know, taken in chains and - or had, you know, no idea entirely where they were going.

Instead, you know, many of the women had paid recruiting fees in order to get the jobs to begin with. Several of them were threatened with more than $1,000 in fines if they, you know, were going to try to head back to Fiji.

KELLY: One of the women who you interviewed, a woman named Lydia, says she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a supervisor on the base. Now, the Army claims that it investigated her situation and that her claims were not substantiated. What exactly were you able to find out?

Ms. STILLMAN: Well, what's troubling is that I was there on the base at the time, and when I found out what they women were alleging - and you know, Lydia was in tears when she conveyed it - I called the U.S. military sexual assault hotline, and the phone rang and rang and rang and no one picked up.

And so I tried again with the help of a U.S. Army captain over a period of several days and never got through. And when we contacted the military about the case, they said that the company had actually investigated. But according to the women, you know, no one ever asked them about the claims of sexual assault.

KELLY: Many of the workers live in what you describe as labor camps. Describe the conditions.

Ms. STILLMAN: Well, they vary drastically from camp to camp. But one of the main camps I write about in the piece - the Prime Projects International Camp on the largest U.S. military base in Baghdad, Camp Victory - was quite a dismal place.

And in this particular camp the workers repeatedly told me that they hadn't been getting enough food for almost a year. And eventually the military confirmed that they did riot. And you know, 1,200 workers were actually throwing stones at their supervisor, were smashing windows, were basically destroying the entire camp, which holds 4,000 of these workers.

KELLY: And when you put concerns like this to Pentagon officials, what is the response? I mean, there are Pentagon guidelines for the humane treatment of workers on U.S. bases.

Ms. STILLMAN: Yeah. And I think what's really important to acknowledge is that the Pentagon tried to take steps in 2006 to curb some of these abuses. The issue is that many of the reforms were quite toothless.

There is a lot of headway that could be made. I just think the trouble is certainly within the U.S. government these workers don't really have a constituency or a voice. So the Pentagon, they say that they promise to look into any, you know, allegations of mistreatment and abuse. That's their policy. I think the question is just whether the resources and the will are there for enforcement.

KELLY: As a result of your reporting, some of the women from Fiji were able to come to Washington. Human rights investigators heard about their cases and they actually met with State Department officials. What is the end to their story?

Ms. STILLMAN: Sadly, it's not a very - it's not a very happy one. Essentially, you know, they shared their story. The government listened and promised to look into it. And I don't think they ever heard much more after that.

And they went back to Fiji, where they found that the man who ran the company that recruited them on false terms is not only still recruiting, he's actually just started this new company that is basically promising workers in Fiji great jobs in Dubai, paying them up to $10,000 U.S. a month, which, you know, seems a little implausible. But workers are still lining up outside his door.

KELLY: The reporter is Sarah Stillman. Her story in this week's New Yorker is called "The Invisible Army."

Sarah Stillman, thanks very much.

Ms. STILLMAN: Thank you.

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