Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Third Country Nationals

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Jun 10 2011

Two weeks ago, a piece by Sarah Stillman appeared in the June 6, 2011 edition of The New Yorker. Titled "The Invisible Army," her piece follows the perils of contract workers "recruited" to work on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, introducing to me a term I had never heard of before: Third Country Nationals. A term as interesting and intriguing as the euphemism guest worker. I am trying to find means to paste the whole article up here, but the report is only available online for The New Yorker subscribers.

What I can do is pull the abstract, which reads:

ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about the recruitment and treatment of foreign workers employed as support staff on American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tells about Vinnie Tuivaga and Lydia Qeraniu, two women from Fiji who were recruited in 2007 by a local firm called Meridian Services Agency, which promised them jobs in Dubai. Once they reached Dubai, however, they were told that they were actually bound for jobs on U.S. military bases in Iraq. Lydia and Vinnie were unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) is behind most of the commercial “tastes of home” that can be found on major U.S. bases, which include jewelry stores, souvenir shops, beauty salons, and fast-food courts. The expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. But armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands. These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on U.S. bases. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law. The wars’ foreign workers are known, in military parlance, as “third-country nationals,” or T.C.N.s. Many of them recount having been robbed of wages, injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses. Widespread mistreatment even led to a series of food riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers. The process of outsourcing begins at major government entities, notably the Pentagon, which awarded its most recent prime logistics contract (worth as much as fifteen billion dollars a year) to three U.S.-based private military behemoths: K.B.R. (the former Halliburton subsidiary), DynCorp International, and Fluor. These “prime venders” then shop out the bulk of their contracts to hundreds of global subcontractors, many based in Middle Eastern countries that are on the U.S. State Department’s human-trafficking noncompliance list. Finally, these firms call upon thousands of Third World “manpower agencies”—small recruiting operations like Meridian Services. Not every third-country national makes it home safely. Since 2001, more than two thousand contractor fatalities and more than fifty-one thousand injuries have been reported in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the first time in American history, private-contractor losses are now on a par with those of U.S. troops in both war zones. Describes the struggles workers faced in having their grievances heard. Tells about worker riots on U.S. bases over issues such as lack of food or unpaid wages.

I am also including a link to an illuminating interview Stillman did with WNYC on June 7, 2011:

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East