U.S. Contractors in Iraq Rely on Third-World Labor

If you thought all contractors in Iraq were gun-toting American mercenaries, think again. Only a fraction of the estimated 180,000 contractors working on behalf of the U.S. government are security contractors — and the overwhelming majority aren't even from the U.S.

Consider Salim Khan, a dishwasher at a forward operating base in the volatile Iraqi province of Diyala. For about $1.25 an hour, the Pakistan native will work two years for a Saudi-based food-services firm, Tamimi.

Tamimi is a subcontractor to KBR, which itself was, until recently, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the mega-corporation that has won most of the big money contracts in Iraq.

Across the heavily fortified American bases in Iraq, men and women like Salim Khan cook the food, clean the dishes, chop the vegetables, take out the garbage and clean the latrines.

In military parlance, they're known as "TCNs" or "third country nationals," but they might as well be called third-world nationals. Most of the cheap U.S. labor in Iraq comes from places like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines and India. The average wage for these workers is about $20 a day; most work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

The Pentagon and the State Department, under fire for the use of security contractors, have largely ignored the issue of fair labor practices among its contractors and subcontractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently noted contractors "take the place of soldiers" to do other, more pressing work.

Iraq is the first war in history where contractors have played a large role. About a half a million people, including contractors, troops and U.S. government civilians, work on behalf of the Iraq mission.

Security Duty

In many of the fortress-like U.S. bases in Iraq, Ugandan soldiers pull security duty. Many American military officers confuse these Ugandans with members of the "coalition of forces" fighting the global "war on terror." But in fact, they're paid private security guards.

An estimated 1,500 Ugandans work for an American security firm called Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group (SOC-SMG). The company is based in Minden, Nev., and was founded by two ex-Navy SEALs. Over the past two years, SOC-SMG has racked up nearly $30 million in Pentagon contracts in Iraq alone.

SOC-SMG is now the target of litigation in Uganda among former employees, many of whom claim they were misled about the amount of money they would be paid. The average Ugandan guard will earn about $3.33 an hour, leaving the bulk of the rest of the contract money in the hands of their American employers.

SOC-SMG disputes the claims and says it will fight the litigants in court.

Green Beans Coffee

For Green Beans Coffee, the war has also been good for business. The California-based company now ranks among Inc. magazine's top 500 fastest-growing private companies in America. Since Sept. 11, 2001, its growth rate has exceeded an astonishing 1,400 percent.

The company has a virtual monopoly on quality coffee at the more than 55 U.S. military installations across the Middle East, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Green Beans Coffee prides itself on "sustainability." In press releases, the company boasts about annual contributions it has made to charities such as the Pat Tillman fund.

Earlier this year, Ernst & Young awarded the company an award for "corporate social responsibility."

But what sets Green Beans apart from its U.S. competitors is cheap labor: Almost all of Green Beans' employees worldwide come from third world countries.

Green Beans' products, on the other hand, aren't cheap: A double latte and a muffin will cost an enlisted U.S. soldier about 15 percent of his or her average daily salary.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: