The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Darcey Rakestraw,,

New Report Reveals Labor Abuses of Foreign Workers in Afghanistan

Third-Country Nationals Denied Compensation for Injuries and Deaths

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island

The U.S. is denying legally-required compensation to foreign workers in war zones, reveals a new paper from the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute that examines labor abuses during the war in Afghanistan.

The report was covered exclusively today by NBC News.

This report focuses on third-country nationals (TCNs), workers from countries other than the U.S. or Afghanistan. In 2020, approximately 65% of wartime contractors were citizens of Afghanistan or a third-party country, such as Nepal.

According to the report, the U.S. military and Department of Labor have done little to enforce the U.S. Defense Base Act (DBA), which calls for the provision of compensation to all workers, regardless of their nationality, injured under U.S. contracts, and for the provision of financial compensation to their kin in case of death.

"This research suggests that military contracting companies circumvented the Defense Base Act regulation in numerous ways, preventing workers - who were often uninformed about their rights - from receiving their full compensation amounts," wrote report authors Noah Coburn, Professor of Anthropology at Bennington College, and Peter Gill, a journalist. "The contracting companies and insurers that participate in these practices profit significantly from the current process that pays little attention to worker protections and have no financial incentive to change their current practices."

Through FOIA requests and interviews with over 200 third-country nationals, many of them Nepali, the authors found that:

  • Over twelve years between 2009 and 2021, the Department of Labor fined contracting companies performing work in Afghanistan only six times for failing to report Defense Base Act claims for their employees. The total amount of these fines amounted to just $3,250.
  • The Army Contracting Command-Afghanistan was able to show that it terminated just four contracts in Afghanistan due to contractor failure to purchase DBA insurance between 2009 and 2020.
  • Of the Nepali contractors the authors interviewed, they found 12 cases of contractors who were injured or killed while working under U.S. government subcontracts in Afghanistan, which were not properly compensated. In two additional cases, they interviewed Nepalis who received DBA compensation for injuries in Iraq only after filing legal challenges with the help of American lawyers.

SIGAR has estimated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone paid companies $58.5 million between 2005-2011 that was supposed to go towards insurance premiums for their workers, but which was instead pocketed.

Even though the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command reports that it still relies on more than 21,000 contractors in its area of responsibility--more than 9,000 of whom are third-country nationals. The report notes there is reason to believe the exploitative practices that lead to these violations may become even more egregious in the future, since they will be difficult to monitor in conflict zones where wars are smaller and there is less international media attention.

"This failure to uphold the law 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," says Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project. "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."

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The Costs of War Project is a team of 50 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians, which began its work in 2010. We use research and a public website to facilitate debate about the costs of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the related violence in Pakistan and Syria. There are many hidden or unacknowledged costs of the United States' decision to respond to the 9/11 attacks with military force. We aim to foster democratic discussion of these wars by providing the fullest possible account of their human, economic, and political costs, and to foster better informed public policies.