The Secret Lives of Contractors


Last month, Iraqis commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Nisour Square massacre, where operatives of private security contractor Blackwater USA opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and injuring another two dozen. We have come to know the names of such companies -- Blackwater, Halliburton, KBR -- but rarely have we been able to put a face with the name.

Lee Wang has changed that. Her documentary, God is My Safest Bunker puts a face on military contractors, but it is not Erik Prince on Blackwater or Dick Cheney on Halliburton. Instead, Wang introduces us to the scores of Filipinos, Nepalese, Indians and other TCNs -- jargon used by government contractors for workers known as "third country nationals" -- who provide the bulk of labor for American contractors. Not Americans and not Iraqis, TCNs are the workers from other countries who risk much, not for wealth, but in many cases for survival.

God is My Safest Bunker tracks the difficult decisions and lives of workers from nations commonly referred to as "third world" countries. Relying on extensive fieldwork in the Philippines and Iraq, smuggled video of contract workers, archival footage, and meticulous research, Wang has produced a documentary that simultaneously addresses issues of migration, war, foreign policy, labor, human rights and global and national economics. Wang traveled to the Philippines four times, twice in 2005 and twice in 2007, and to Iraq in late 2006. Much of her time in Iraq was spent at Camp Marez, a tiny outpost near Mosul where a couple hundred Filipinos work 12-hour days on average, without days off, often for $300 a month.

God is My Safest Bunker, under contract with PBS and expected to premiere in 2009, was originally a 30-minute student film called Someone Else's War, which Wang made as graduate journalism student at University of California, Berkeley. The short earned Wang a reputation among filmmakers, winning an award at the Tribeca Film Festival and selected as one of the top five shorts by New York magazine.

At Berkeley, Wang studied under noted documentary filmmaker Jon Else, whose films include Cadillac Desert, Sing Faster and The Day After Trinity. For Else, Someone Else's War was a student film because "a student made it, but it rose well above the ceiling nearly all student films hit." Else said, "Every once in a while, you suspect there is a student who is smarter than you are and I think that's true of Lee."

Else, who first met Wang in a first-year seminar and who later had Wang as a teaching assistant, said that one of her greatest attributes is that "nothing gets past Lee. She will catch everything, but she'll do it quietly and because of that, she can produce accounts that are quite complex while doing it simply."

The 30 year-old Manhattan native, whose younger brother is also a filmmaker, wrote for MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" in 2003 and 2004 where she covered the early parts of the Iraq invasion and now produces short videos on the campaign trail for Newsweek. Wang's small frame and calm demeanor may have misled viewers at the prestigious Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, where her film was featured earlier this month. According to Else, "Lee's tough. Very tough."

And while Wang might be tough, she opts for subtlety over the often in-your-face approach of her former MSNBC boss. She could have told us about the cases where workers from Nepal or Bangladesh thought they were going to Dubai to build a hotel only to deplane and find themselves in Baghdad. Or she could have told us about the gross human rights violations that provided water from the Tigris when bottled water ran out.

But she didn't.

Instead, Wang told a story that, in one way or another, was recognizable to nearly any American.

"This is really just symptomatic of how out of control the contracting system is."

Ailyn Mateo is a single mother from Manila who, at the age of 30, comes to the realization that she no longer fits the demographic of the preferred 18-to-25 work force in the Philippines. After multiple stretches in Iraq, Mateo is ultimately determined unfit to work in the Middle East when a doctor in the Philippines finds scar tissue on her lungs from shrapnel after a suicide attack on Camp Marez.

"I think the whole arc of Ailyn's story is really fascinating," says Wang, because it is "emblematic of the conundrum that so many Filipinos find themselves in. Because it's easy to condemn the contracting, because clearly it's an exploitative system." But for Wang, what is harder to come to terms with is the fact that some people want to go to Iraq because of what are considered to be good jobs. "And in Ailyn's case, she wants to go back, even after she is hurt in the suicide bombing and almost loses her child."

The challenges that Mateo faces, Wang points out, are common among TCNs, but until recently we had no idea just how common TCNs themselves are. When Wang made the first version of the film, her best estimates from research put the number at 30,000.

T. Christian Miller, author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq, reported last year not only an estimated 43,000 TCNs, but revealed that private contractors in all sectors paid by the U.S. government in Iraq actually outnumber American combat troops.

"I think that just goes to show how little oversight there is of the contracting industry," says Wang. "Even the DoD didn't know how many contractors were on the ground until 2006. This is really just symptomatic of how out of control the contracting system is."

One of the common stories is exemplified in Melvin Umali, a Filipino worker at Camp Marez who was supposed to work in Dubai. And when asked what happened, he said, "The agency lied." After applying for a job in Dubai, "we were told there weren't any jobs in Dubai" and "I didn't really have a choice. I'd already spent so much money. That's why when they asked me if I was willing to go to Iraq, I took my chance."

Recourse is nearly impossible when the chains of U.S. contractors and subcontractors may be three, four or five links deep, leaving TCNs unsure who their employer actually is.

In the world of migrant labor, risks are quite high but for Wang, "migration in the Philippines is really on another scale … migrating into a war zone is taking the logic of globalization to the extreme. But I think that's the moment we're in, where we have to ask ourselves if there should be any limits on the global labor market."

Responding to this critical question, the Philippines in 2004 barred further contract workers from going to Iraq. But many Filipinos are so desperate for work that they will take detours to other countries as a means to circumvent the checks in place keeping them from going to Iraq. And, as a country, the Philippines is not in a position to turn down the remittances; approximately one-seventh of the Filipino economy relies on expatriate labor remittances.

One of the Filipinos who worked for home, Rodrigo Reyes, was a truck driver. Wang says that the life of a truck driver, like Reyes "is a completely different thing." "We went on a convoy run that was a little harrowing. But when it got hairy you just have to remind yourself that these guys do this every night. Night after night."

Lives Valued on a Sliding Scale

What Wang finds particularly disturbing about convoys in Iraq is that most of the convoys are now driven by TCNs. Wang recalls: "One American Army Major we interviewed told us the ratio was 3:1 TCN to American. Having American contractors on the road is just too much of a liability."

In a grotesque turn, not only do TCNs work for a fraction of the salary paid to American drivers, Wang alerts us that "they go out on the road in trucks that have no armor. Zero. We toured a TCN truck yard (yes, even the truck yards are segregated) and all the trucks were just regular 16 wheelers. No steel plating -- not even on the doors." The KBR trucks, however, "look more like tanks on wheels."

Hedging on this liability may have been what cost Rodrigo Reyes his life. Reyes' family, including his cousin Mario Reyes who was also in Iraq with Rodrigo, recalls his history as a migrant truck driver from the Philippines. When it came to Iraq, they begged him not to go, but Reyes sold his truck and paid his recruitment fee with the intention of "providing his family a bright future." In the film, a hopeful narrative ends abruptly when Reyes' wife receives a call that his truck had been blown up.

Paying to work, living like prisoners

One of the films surprising moments for viewers was also a surprising discovery for Mike Land, a KBR labor coordinator who spoke to Wang despite the knowledge that he could lose his job. Wang describes him as "an idealist on some level and who believes in doing the right thing."

"I'll never forget," Land recalls. "I was walking down the road with my first four guys and Charlie was elated. In his broken English, he said 'no more bank … money go home.' I managed to understand that he was elated because he had paid off the bank; he had paid off the loan on his agency fee. And he described the fee that he paid."

TCNs pay fees to labor recruiters in their home countries to get the jobs that often pay them $300 a month. The fees can run as high as a few thousand dollars, which means that TCNs often work a year before breaking even, or they drain their life savings or sell everything they own to work in another country.

"You could call [Land's shock] willful ignorance," said Wang. "But the reality is that on the ground in Iraq the life of TCNs is pretty rigidly segregated from the life of American contractors. They live in separate camps and often eat in separate dining halls. American contractors are also not allowed into the living quarters of TCNs and vice versa. In fact the trailers of the TCNs at Camp Marez were guarded by private security. Soldiers know even less about how TCNs live."

Since filming, Land wrote on a message board:

"It's also hard to see these guys confined to their crowded camp like prisoners. They are denied access to the very facilities they built, maintain and clean. And their mobility is being reduced. Some of my guys who've been here three years now -- and once had an orange badge that at least permitted them to take a walk outside their camp -- have been issued red badges. That means they can not be without an [American] expat escort."
Land reports that the camps have been improved somewhat over the past two years but some issues still exist: a repeated diet of mostly rice, poor medical -- and no dental -- care. They live a dozen (sometimes more) per 40 foot shipping containers, oftentimes with sewage overflowing and showers that don't work, as the film captures.

"When abuses like this have been brought to KBR's attention, their standard response is to plead ignorance," said Wang.

"In a way this isn't so surprising because fundamentally, contracting is about farming out responsibility and accountability, and that means closing your eyes when it's convenient."

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