Continuing on with the topic of exploitation worker let's turn to a recently published, and unfortunately overlooked, article "Cheap help from Uganda" published in Le Monde diplomatique in France. The article's subtitle "Slaves to the Private Military in Iraq" pretty much tells you what the article is about.
The article recounts how private security firms won lucrative contracts to supply support staff and security guards to back up U.S. forces in Iraq. The firms recruited Ugandans and pushed them to the limit, on low pay and no benefits.
Of course, this is hardly the first time this has happened. I noted in my book that in in September 2007, a Nevada-based private security ﬁrm called SOC-SMG started recruiting in Namibia. People there needed jobs, but when news spread about the risks they'd face in Iraq, there was public outcry, and in October Namibia kicked the company's ofﬁcials out of the country.
Still, that episode is useful to recall because SOC-SMG is also mentioned in the Le Monde article.
Kellen Kayonga -- sister-in-law of one of the best-known security company directors in Uganda, General Salim Saleh, who is a younger brother of President Yoweri Museveni -- founded Askar Security Services. Since 2005 Askar has recruited manpower on behalf of Special Operations Consulting (SOC, now renamed SOC-SMG), a Nevada-based company founded by two former U.S. officers. Askar's main competition in Uganda -- the Pakistani company Dreshak International -- opened a branch in Kampala the same year and began working for another U.S.-based PMC operating in Iraq, EODT. (Since 2006 a dozen more "conflict entrepreneurs" have set up operations in Uganda.) In poorer areas of Kampala, Iraq was seen as the new frontier for kyeyos (migrant workers). A former combatant who signed up with these firms could earn up to $1,300 a month, well above the average in Kampala's flourishing security and civilian protection sector.
In 2007 more than 3,000 Ugandans were deployed to Iraq. In 2008 they numbered 10,000. Most were employed by American PMCs such as Torres, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Sabre and SOC. "Then," said [Angelo] Izama, [a Ugandan journalist and blogger] "it degenerated into a price war." Pay started to fall. "It was an unregulated sector here, so if you had political connections you could muscle your way [into] a business like this. But the essential reason for the under-pricing was that ... recruitment was [no longer aimed just at] veterans. Anyone could go [to Iraq]." Another pretext for cutting pay was competition from workers recruited in Kenya and Sierra Leone. Uganda's labour ministry failed to intervene. In 2009 average pay fell below $700. Meanwhile, Sabre was getting $1,700 from the US government for every Ugandan guard recruited. Askar was paid $420,000 dollars for sending 264 guards to Iraq for Beowulf International, another PMC.
In autumn 2011 kyeyo pay in Iraq fell to $400 a month for a 12-hour day and a six-day week.
While some in the private military and security contracting industry often justify paying third country nationals less and treating them because it is supposedly better than the alternative, meaning no job at all, others call gross exploitation of workers. Personally, I think indentured servitude would be an accurate terms. Consider this excerpt:
Their story began at Dreshak's Uganda branch in central Kampala. For two months, they underwent military training designed to test their aptitudes. During this time they were not paid; the company only provided meals. At the end of training, Dreshak asked them to go home and wait to be recalled. Some waited for three months. The day they were finally summoned was the point of no return. A former recruit said: "We had no other option. All the time we were waiting, we were spending money without earning any. Some of us had even sold all our belongings, except for the chairs. We had no option but to sign. Under those conditions, they could make us accept anything." The contract they were shown at this point was 11 pages long. They were given 15 minutes to read it and initial each page.
That day, the recruits also discovered the name of their final employer -- SOC. Bernard remembered hesitating before signing: "I was working for the internet department of a company and when I saw the pay SOC were offering I really wondered if it was worth it. It was only 300,000 shillings (around $117) more a month." On the insistence of his friends, and after a number of phone calls from an "American manager," Bernard eventually decided to go. Two days and a seven-hour flight later, he landed in Baghdad.
Three-quarters of an hour by helicopter from Baghdad, the Al-Assad airbase was a little piece of America in the middle of Iraq. The SOC unit the kyeyos were joining was made up of around 800 Ugandans, commanded by a few Ugandan expatriates who took their orders from US superiors. After another month of training, again unpaid, the new recruits discovered Iraq's dust storms and freezing winter nights. They had to wait several months for the equipment SOC had promised. The gloves they needed for the cold nights only arrived at the end of the winter. Some had to buy their own dust masks at the PX (base store), $25 out of their meagre pay. Even the military equipment they were issued with was not regulation: AK 47, cartridge belt, helmet and bulletproof vest, all second-hand -- the kyeyos joked that they were Chinese. They carried a heavier load, but were less well protected than the regulars from snipers, who could hit the mark at a range of several hundred metres: among their duties was checking the 500 vehicles entering the compound each day.
And if a worker was bold enough, make that incautious enough, to complain? Well, let's just say they would have a very short career.
As the weeks went by, they discovered that the enemy could also be within their own unit: their bosses worked them far harder than was allowed in their contract, pushing them beyond the limits of their physical endurance. Some worked 15 hours a day. Holidays (unpaid) in Uganda, which they had been promised after 12 months on tour, were repeatedly postponed. A number of former TCNs told me they had lived under constant pressure, terrified, even at night: "You couldn't say anything. They had the power of life and death over you; they could send you wherever they liked -- to the most dangerous posts if they thought you were a troublemaker."
SOC had the perfect way to control recalcitrant TCNs: terminating their contract without severance pay and shipping them home. A contract I obtained from SOC lists 21 kinds of unacceptable behaviour that will result in disciplinary measures. In this document, "termination of services" is the last resort after a series of other measures, ranging from a written warning to suspension for five days without pay. On the ground, the reality was far harsher. In the contract, SOC reserves the right to "take other disciplinary action on other violations of orders or policy that may not be listed." A former recruit told me: "You would get a warning letter ... because you hadn't been wearing your helmet off duty, and they would stop your pay for two weeks. And you still had to work. We were scared of losing our jobs, so we kept our mouths shut." The code of conduct section of the contract requires the employee to "uphold the ideals of the Republic of Uganda" and "refrain from tarnishing the image of Uganda abroad."
The SOC contract also provides for "termination of services" if the employee is unable to work, owing to illness, injury or accident, for 30 days or more in any four-month period. Bernard was privileged because he worked in SOC's offices, but saw dozens of his countrymen fired for arbitrarily assessed health problems. "During the long dust storms," he said, "they used to develop ear infections or sinusitis. They had eye problems, even lung problems. When they asked for treatment, all they got was aspirin. And when they came back because it didn't cure them, they would be fired. SOC just didn't want to have to pay any kind of medical expenses. As they used to tell us, they were there to make money."
Interestingly, SOC is a member company of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), a leading PMSC trade group, whose mission, among other things, is to "Promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the peace and stability operations industry." ISOA's Code of Conduct states:
1.1 Signatories shall respect the dignity of all human beings and adhere to all applicable international humanitarian and human rights laws.
5. Signatories, recognizing the often high level of risk inherent to operations in complex environments, shall strive to operate in a safe, responsible, conscientious and prudent manner and shall make their best efforts to ensure that their personnel adhere to these principles.
6.1.2. Signatories shall ensure that personnel are fully informed of risk associated with their employment, as well as terms, conditions and significance of their contracts in accordance with clearly defined company standards.
6.1.3. Payment of different wages to various nationalities shall be based on merit and national economic differential, and shall not be based on racial, gender or ethnic grounds.
Apparently SOC didn't bother reading the code, or perhaps, they thought it more of a guideline.
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