Contractor in Afghanistan

A civilian contractor from the Philippines build a Christian church for U.S. troops at Forward Operating Base Delaram in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan on April 4, 2011. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

'Uncompensated Allies': Report Details How US Stiffed Foreign Workers in Afghanistan

Tens of thousands of foreign workers supported the U.S. military in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon has failed to compensate many for injuries they suffered on the job.

Many foreign workers who aided the U.S. military by working on bases in Afghanistan during the 20-year occupation--and were more likely than Americans to be killed or injured by bombings--have received little to no compensation for injuries or death, despite the fact that U.S. law requires the Pentagon to recompense them and their families.

"While this research looks specifically at Afghanistan, it's clear that this type of labor exploitation will persist there and elsewhere until there is accountability for these U.S. government abuses."

That's according to a new report published Tuesday by the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, which has for more than a decade worked to account for the total cost--in dollars, human lives, and public health consequences--of the United States' post-9/11 wars.

Bennington College anthropology professor Noah Coburn and journalist Peter Gill authored the report, titled Uncompensated Allies, detailing the experiences of more than 200 people who were among the tens of thousands who traveled to Afghanistan from countries such as Nepal and the Philippines to work as guards, cooks, and construction workers for companies contracted by the Pentagon.

Out of more than 200 people the researchers interviewed, 12 were never properly compensated for injuries they suffered on the job, as required by the Defense Base Act (DBA), and two who worked with Pentagon contractors in Iraq received compensation only after filing legal challenges.

The DBA stipulates that Pentagon contractors must purchase insurance for their employees, including "third-country nationals" (TCNs), and compensate them for major injuries or their families if they are killed--as nearly 2,000 were in Afghanistan, according to the Costs of War Project.

The report shows that in many cases, contractors went out of their way to ensure foreign workers would not be compensated after being injured:

Our review of cases of Nepali workers in Afghanistan, however, finds that many TCNs do not even get to the stage where they can file an insurance claim. This occurs because they are unaware of their rights, their employers do not purchase the required insurance, and/or their employers do not support their victimized employees in filing claims... Companies deliberately removed injured TCNs from Afghanistan to Nepal as quickly as possible and denied them paperwork concerning their injury and termination--although they often provided smaller cash payments. There is no logical rationale for these practices other than the companies' hopes that this would deter victims from seeking outside legal assistance.

While Coburn and Gill identified more than a dozen TCNs who received far less compensation than they were entitled to--or none at all--NBC News noted that attorney Matthew Handley of Handley, Farah & Anderson has represented about 50 workers as they sought to be compensated by the Pentagon, suggesting the problem is more widespread than the report is able to show.

At the height of Pentagon contractors' employment of TCNs, in 2012, foreign workers made up about a third of roughly 100,000 contract employees in Afghanistan. These workers were more likely than Americans to be killed or injured during an attack by the Taliban, according to the report, with one U.S. veteran telling the researchers that TCNs were sometimes referred to as "'our flak jackets' and 'bait' for suicide bombers."

One of the Nepali TCNs who was killed while working for the Pentagon was Yam Bahadur, who worked for a security company guarding a compound in Kabul in 2012. He was killed while protecting Americans from a suicide bombing at the compound that year and the Pentagon contractor continued paying his wife, Goma, his salary of $1,000 per month for four years--but Goma "accepted the payments unaware that she might be eligible for any greater amount."

It was unclear whether Bahadur's employer ever purchased the insurance required by the DBA, which stipulates that widows and widowers are entitled to half their deceased spouse's salary for the rest of their lives--not just for four years.

"In Goma's case, the commuted lump-sum would likely be over $200,000, instead of the $48,000 she received over the course of four years," wrote Coburn and Gill. "Goma eventually got in touch with a researcher studying Nepali migrant labor, who put her in touch with U.S. human rights lawyers. She is now represented by the U.S.-based law firm Handley, Farah & Anderson, and is awaiting a hearing in a Department of Labor special court."

In most cases examined by the authors, injured workers and the families of people who were killed in Afghanistan did not have the means to secure legal representation in the United States.

A spokesperson for the Pentagon told NBC News that "the Department of Defense is not aware of the cited study nor any specific cases of Defense Base Act (DBA) noncompliance" and said the law requires war-hazard insurance and workers' compensation.

Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project, said the report shows that the United States' failure "to protect foreign workers is one of the many human costs of the U.S. post-9/11 wars that are largely unknown to the American public."

"While this research looks specifically at Afghanistan, it's clear that this type of labor exploitation will persist there and elsewhere until there is accountability for these U.S. government abuses," Savell said.

Although the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan ended in 2021, more than 9,000 TCNs still work for Pentagon contractors across the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility in the Middle East.

"Exploitative practices from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are likely now to continue into an era when U.S. counterterror wars are smaller and less visible to the U.S. public, particularly as the U.S. military expands its footprint in places like Africa and Southeast Asia," wrote Coburn and Gill.

"It is likely that contractors will dominate these future wars," they added. "This may reduce the number of deaths of government soldiers, but will make exploitation and other harm to contracted workers all the more likely. Robust mechanisms to protect these workers, as well as the political will to enforce them, are imperative."

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