May 19, 2013
On Manning, Fracking and Walker’s Chickens
Posted on Jun 9, 2011
Josh Scheer: And so this is something we need to keep our eyes on for the next many years …
Tom Kenworthy: Yes.
Josh Scheer: … because as you’ve said, this is going to be around for a while.
Kasia Anderson: Fracking is a keyword for our readers.
Tom Kenworthy: Right. And this issue is going to be around for quite some time. There are projections that gas is going to increase its role in electricity production; there’s a lot of advocacy out there for using natural gas as a transportation fuel. We have really large supplies of it, and it’s going to be drilled and used more and more. I think one of the problems in that, and I hope it doesn’t happen, is that in terms of electricity production it could, if it’s cheap enough, tend to crowd out real renewables—wind and solar. And you’re speaking to me from California, where you’ve got a requirement that 33 percent of your electricity come from wind and solar and other renewables. And it’s important for you to meet that goal, and it’s important for the perhaps three dozen other states that have similar, no less ambitious requirements.
Kasia Anderson: Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us there. And that’s all the time we have, unfortunately. We’ve been talking with Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow at American Progress. This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. I’m here with Josh Scheer. Thanks for your time, Tom.
Tom Kenworthy: Hey, thanks for inviting me on. It was a pleasure.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. And I’m here with Josh Scheer, also of Truthdig, and one of our own writers from our flock, who has now gone on to greater pastures in the New Yorker here. We have Sarah Stillman, who is a New York-based journalist who is reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan; has appeared in many publications including The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, TheAtlantic.com, TheNewRepublic.com, and The Dallas Morning News. And we were proud to say that in 2008 she was a foreign correspondent in Iraq for Truthdig, and she was embedded with the 116th military police company. So, but today we want to talk about, Sarah, your piece in The New Yorker called “The Invisible Army.” And I like this little tagline they have under it, which is “For foreign workers on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell.” And from reading the piece, it seems like a lot of these workers didn’t really gamble on ending up in these destinations. Is that right?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah. You know, I first learned about all this when I was doing the embed for Truthdig over in Iraq in 2008. And I stumbled upon, on one of the bases, a big or a medium-sized beauty salon, where they were giving manicures and pedicures to U.S. soldiers on the base, right alongside like a Cinnabon and various fast-food chains that were also on the base, which came as a surprise. …
Kasia Anderson: It’s one-stop shopping, huh?
Sarah Stillman: Exactly. So—and you could get a motorcycle as well, that they would send home to you. So I started speaking with the women in the salon, and eventually they told me that they had initially been promised great jobs in Dubai by a local recruiting company. And instead it ultimately turned out there was no job for them in Dubai; instead they were actually slated for jobs in these beauty salons in Iraq.
Kasia Anderson: And at this point, just to get a grip on how this happened, they had signed some document that ostensibly made it difficult for them to back out at that stage?
Sarah Stillman: Well, at that point some of the women had taken out loans to get the jobs, to pay the recruiting fees for the jobs. Others were told that once they got to Dubai they would have to pay—one woman was told she would have to pay up to 4,000 U.S. dollars if she actually wanted to go back, which was money she just didn’t have. And so they were quite vulnerable; they were women traveling on their own in another country under the supervision of this company, and didn’t really feel like they had much recourse at that point.
Josh Scheer: They were basically indentured servants, one might say.
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, you know, what I write about in the piece is that many of the workers I encountered were in much worse straits that I think really did constitute, resembled indentured servitude. Which is basically they would pay a lot of these companies in the home country, the recruiting companies, they would pay between a thousand U.S. dollars and all the way up to 6,000 U.S. dollars to get the jobs. And often the recruiters are promising them, you know, don’t worry, you’ll make it back in a month or two, as soon as you get to Iraq or Afghanistan. And instead, they get there and it turns out they’ll have to work almost an entire year or more to actually just pay back the recruiting fees. Sometimes they’re making as little as $150 or $250 a month working basically seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
Josh Scheer: They’re basically serfs, modern serfs, right? [Laughter]
Sarah Stillman: Probably something close, yeah.
Kasia Anderson: He just wants you to say yes. [Laughter]
Sarah Stillman: Right, sure …
Josh Scheer: No, no, it’s fine, you don’t have to say serfs.
Sarah Stillman: So many different workers in so many different circumstances. Some are absolutely indentured servants, I would say. And others … and some are, you know, the U.S. government has documented victims of outright human trafficking. And some of the cases are a much more complex version of economic coercion.
Josh Scheer: Now, did you do a lot of the research? Like, is this typical for wars that the U.S. fights? Do we use these kind of, as you point at, fly-by-night subcontractors, that are financed by us, the taxpayer? Or is this typical now for the new war in, like, Iraq and Afghanistan?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, this is totally unprecedented in American history. I mean, obviously the history of contracting itself goes back to George Washington making these attempts to contract out, like, liquor for the troops. But never before have we brought in, certainly not these numbers of foreign personnel to be getting these jobs. Because we’re talking about people from Uganda, and Fiji, and India, and Sri Lanka—I mean, people from many of the world’s poorest countries. And that’s just something you didn’t see before. I mean, I think … and in Bosnia there was, under Clinton, there were a number of experiments with the sort of earlier versions of contracting, often using local hires. But we’ve never seen anything on this scale before.
Kasia Anderson: So, kind of walk us through this process, maybe, that some of these workers may encounter. First of all, they get a kind of a surprise with where they end up working, and then they through economic coercion, as you put it; they can be held longer than they thought they were going to be, because of owing debts for recruitment, et cetera. What is the next step that can happen here?
Sarah Stillman: Well, I think what’s interesting is they face a lot of the same struggles that, in some cases, U.S. soldiers face, except with far fewer resources and far fewer, less clear avenues when something goes wrong. So for instance, I write about a guy, Constantine Rodriguez, who was working in a Pizza Hut, a guy from Goa, India, and he was hit by a rocket, and two workers in the shop were killed; I think they were Bangladeshis. And he lost his eye and he lost his leg, and he was sent back to his home country, and he doesn’t have the access to medical care that people from the U.S. would have. And essentially what so many of these workers who get injured face is that technically they’re entitled to Defense Base Act payouts from the U.S. government; they’re entitled to insurance and medical care. But most of these workers don’t even have any idea that that exists; they have no idea how they would file for it if they did; they don’t have a lawyer; they don’t necessarily speak English. So that’s just one example of many. Another quick example is something I write about in the piece quite a bit, which is in some of the labor camps where they’re kept by the foreign subcontractors on the U.S. bases, sometimes they’re held without sufficient food. And I documented a riot in which 1,200 Indian and Nepali workers literally just started smashing everything in the camp, saying they needed more food.
Josh Scheer: And what has the Pentagon done about this? I mean, I know you’ve talked to them and … there’s some kind of toothless regulations, and this was a while ago. What are they going to do about this?
Sarah Stillman: You know, it’s really stunning that these people just don’t … they don’t really have a voice, and they don’t really have advocates within the U.S. government. So I think that’s why we’ve seen such little motion on it. In 2006, following a bit of reporting that was quite fantastic after a very, very depressing case of a group of Nepali workers who had been promised great jobs, again, in I think Jordan, and they were instead en route to a U.S. military base in Iraq when they were kidnapped by insurgents, and I believe 11 or 12 of them were killed by the insurgents. After that, the U.S. government started looking into the human-trafficking issue in particular. And they did put forth a few regulations, but as I found over the past few years, the abuses continue and there’s, again, very little transparency or accountability.
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