ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The Government Accountability Office estimates that there are about 180,000 contractors working for the U.S. in Iraq. That is more than the total number of American troops there. The vast majority are not security contractors. They are low-skilled workers. Many work for either U.S. contractors or foreign-based subcontractors.
As NPR's Guy Raz reports from Balad Air Base north of Baghdad, the working conditions are tough, and the companies that hire these workers are not necessarily concerned about labor standards.
GUY RAZ: Salim Khan isn't some leather-necked mercenary flashing a small arsenal of deadly weaponry. In fact, he's a slight man from Pakistan, who, for a buck and twenty-five an hour, seven days a week, washes dishes at the chow hall on a small base north of Baghdad. The military calls guys like Salim Khan TCNs. It stands for third-country nationals. But they might as well be called third-world nationals because it's men and women from places like…
Unidentified Man #1: Bangladesh.
Unidentified Man #2: Pakistan.
Unidentified Man #3: Sri Lanka.
Unidentified Woman #1: Philippines.
Unidentified Man #4: India.
Unidentified Woman #2: I'm from the Nepal.
RAZ: …who make up the bulk of the contractors working for the United States in Iraq. At most U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's these folks who'd cook food and wash the dishes and chop the lettuce.
(Soundbite of chopping)
RAZ: And serve cafe lattes.
(Soundbite of coffee brewing)
RAZ: And dig the ditches…
(Soundbite of digging)
RAZ: …and clean the latrines and do the laundry the whole internal security usually for about…
Unidentified Man #5: Four hundred.
RAZ: A month?
Unidentified Man #5: Four hundred dollars.
RAZ: Every month?
Unidentified Man #5: Yeah, one month, $400.
SAMUEL(ph) (Security Guard, Iraq): I'm a security specialist, actually guarding in particular.
RAZ: And they're (unintelligible) again this year, right?
RAZ: This is a former private in the Ugandan army and now a security guard outside the battalion headquarters at a heavily fortified military base north of Baghdad. We'll call him Samuel to protect his identity. Samuel's polite manner and easy-going style betray a fierce appearance. Dark wraparound shades and assault rifles slung over his shoulder.
Samuel is one of several hundred Ugandan ex-soldiers who pulled guard duty at dozens of bases in Iraq. His family doesn't even know he's here.
SAMUEL: They don't know that I'm in Iraq. But yes, they know that I'm in the Middle East, could it be so that I'd be in some other country. I never want them to get to worry that I'm in the worst war zone. But to me, as a soldier, it's okay. I'm going to do that.
RAZ: Several military commanders here proudly pointed out the Ugandan guards and describe them as loyal fighters, part of the U.S.-led coalition forces here. But, in fact, the Ugandans are paid private security guards. They're under contract with a Nevada-based security firm called Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group.
The war has been good for business. In just the past two years, SOC-SMG has been awarded nearly $30 million in Pentagon contracts in Iraq alone. The company keeps overhead costs low by hiring former Ugandan soldiers who make about $3 an hour.
SOC-SMG's main subsidiary, Dreshak International, is now the target of several lawsuits from former Ugandan guards who claim breaches of contract and workplace abuse in Iraq. Now the company is promising to fight the litigation and denies all of the allegations.
(Soundbite of drumbeat)
RAZ: Salam Mariya Ripam(ph) used to make a living fishing in the rivers of Kerala in India. He is now a full-fledged barista at a U.S. military base in Iraq. Mariya Ripam works for a California-based coffee company, Green Beans International.
The war's also been good for Green Beans. It's got the market cornered on decent coffee at U.S. bases throughout the Middle East. And last month, that company made Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest growing private companies in America. Green Beans has seen its growth approach 1,400 percent in just a few years. And what explains it?
Well, unlike other U.S. coffee chains, Green Beans can employ cheap labor from the third world at cut-rate prices. On its Web site, the company boasts of its charitable contributions in what it calls its sustainable ethos. Ernst & Young just gave the owners an award in corporate social responsibility.
RAZ: Back in the kitchen at a base in Diyala Province, Rajal Kharim(ph), also from India, scrubs pots and pans and gears up for the dinner rush. He says he is perfectly happy to earn $20 a day for a 12-hour shift.
Mr. RAJAL KHARIM (Contractor, Diyala Province, Iraq): Making here more money, not like this work from from India.
RAZ: His employer is the Saudi-based firm Tamimi. And Tamimi is, itself, a subcontractor at KBR, which, to make it more complicated, was, until recently, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company that's been awarded the most lucrative contracts in Iraq. Several of these workers' supervisors - most of them Americans - refuse to answer any questions about their own salaries or whether they felt the workers are being exploited. One dismissed the inquiry saying, quote, "we're providing them with better jobs than they'd find in their own countries."
Gay Ruz, NPR News, Balad Air Base, Iraq.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.