Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Return to research Posted on 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:

Opeds, General

4 thoughts on “Third Country Nationals

  1. Dana says:

    The New Yorker article by Sarah Stillman does a superb job of thoroughly documenting the mistreatment of many South Asian and African workers by layers of subcontractors on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Pentagon brass and top government officials seem to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment. Why couldn’t there be a small office on these bases with American military officers charged with monitoring working/living conditions for these “third country nationals”?

    Also, with so many layers of subcontractors, U.S. taxpayers’ money no doubt goes to profits for them, rather than wages/benefits for the workers.

  2. pierre says:

    i have worked in Iraq for nearly 6 years as a foreign national contractor.
    As i am British, i am spared a lot of poor treatment that TCNs or FNs, Foreign Nationals, as we are now called, receive.
    Some examples include being segregated from US Citizens on buses, restroom facilities, dining facilities and having to ” give way” to DOD Badge holders, these are the US citizen civilian contractors, at lines for many of the above facilities.
    I have witnessed the removal of passports as a condition of entry onto US Military bases.

  3. TCN says:

    This is 100% true that contractors/subcontractors are are mistreated FN’s. I hope Pentagon will value also the the contribution of TCN’s to their missions. Salary and other benefits are base on Nationality. No HAZARD pay for FN’s and less R&R days. But we don’t have choice coz there is no Labor office in US Military bases that will set pay laws or rule inside the base by which gives best opportunity to contractors/subcontractors to just give very very less salary to FN’s. If any of us will be hit by rocket we will be sent home without nothing, our bills in hospital will be paid by ourselves and no insurance at all. We feel so helpless and no justice. If we will complain to RONCO here in Afghanistan we will get fired when our company knows that we complain.

  4. Kadir says:

    Why as TCN serving the U.S military in differrent base, we’re not eligible to join in u.s military ? If … who do we need to talk or send email, since our internet acess is very limited be our subcontrator.
    Thks God Bless you all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East