Stranded On An Army Base: The Plight Of Third Country Nationals

Written by Guest Contributor, Maggie Hardy

“The American people are a good people... they will help us, if they know what is happening.” These words, spoken by a Sri Lankan bus driver at an American military base in Iraq, turned what would have been just another special-interest story in the New Yorker into a kind of moral quandary. His employer was Gulf Catering Company, one of the hundreds of subcontractors responsible for providing the labor force that furnishes American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan with basic services. Workers like the bus driver who captured my conscience are part of an unseen workforce of “third party nationals” (TCNs) from some of the most impoverished nations in the world. Small “manpower agencies” recruit these men and women by frequently questionable means, furnishing American troops with janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and hairdressers who are often subjected to abysmal living conditions and disappointing wages, and sometimes victims of human trafficking.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

Is there a discrepancy between our country’s image and our practices? The bus driver’s touching faith in the goodwill of the American people made me wonder how far we have strayed from the transparent government and simple freedoms that so many of us have learned to proudly label as “American.” As I investigated the story further, the trafficking victims I met told stories of a convoluted system of defense contracts which allowed manpower agencies to bring them onto bases in Iraq without the knowledge of American taxpayers or troops. According to a report by the Project on Government Oversight, three years ago almost one thousand South Asian workers paid a subcontractor crushing recruitment fees to be housed in a virtually uninhabitable warehouse outside Baghdad for months without hope of employment. After the Army Leadership at a nearby base caught wind of the situation, the subcontractor, Najlaa International Catering Services, sent the men home at their own cost, leaving them saddled with unpaid recruitment and travel fees. The incident appears to have been tossed back and forth like a hot potato among agencies within the military, but it never reached the ears of our elected officials. Furthermore, Najlaa continued to receive new contracts. Yet the Sri Lankan bus driver retained his faith in an America dedicated to pursuing justice for all. Why?

Photo courtesy of Expert Infantry

The answer to this question may lie in the phrasing of his statement; he wasn’t expressing his confidence in the institutions that represent Americans, but rather in the American people themselves. It was this appeal to our personal humanity and sense of justice that had seized my conscience when I first read his words. I felt responsible for upholding his trust, and I wanted to do my part to bring his predicament to light, albeit in a far less professional manner than the reporter for the New Yorker or the investigators for the Project for Government Oversight. So, for what it’s worth, I’m sharing what I know about the plight of TCNs with you.

If you’d like to show your support for these workers, please sign my petition to the Secretary of the Army asking for more oversight of defense subcontractors: Thank you!

Maggie is a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She isn't entirely sure what she's studying yet, but has been interested in politics for as long as she can remember. She hopes you enjoyed the article!