Foreign workers for defense contractors on at least four U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf are trapped in their jobs by abusive employment practices that they say prevent them from returning home or even looking for better work in the region, more than 30 current and former workers said in interviews.

Many of the thousands of migrants employed on Persian Gulf bases have had their passports confiscated, been saddled with onerous debts after paying illegal recruitment fees or been denied “release papers” required under local laws, according to the interviews as well as court records and government documents showing that such abuses, which appear to violate U.S. regulations, have been repeatedly flagged in recent years.

The companies that provide food, repair vehicles and supply other services to the U.S. military routinely turn down requests from civilian employees for release papers they need to leave their jobs, more than a dozen workers told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Washington Post. Under the strict labor laws of most countries in the region, employees who leave jobs without permission have been jailed for “absconding.” In some of these countries, notably Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, defense contractors hold onto their workers’ passports, often restricting their freedom of movement, workers said.

Employment agencies in the workers’ home countries, meantime, frequently charge steep fees to place them in jobs overseas. The fees can run into the thousands of dollars and are often financed with high-interest loans, requiring migrants who are paid as little as $1 an hour to work for several years before they’ve paid off their debts, according to 19 current or former workers for nine contractors and subcontractors in the Persian Gulf.

“Life is not easy,” said a young Bangladeshi food services worker named Mohammed, who works on a base in Kuwait. “My family has problems, and it’s just me working, and I have parents, two brothers, and one of my sisters to take care of.” Mohammed, whose last name is not being published to prevent retaliation by his employer, said he was forced to pay a $6,000 recruitment fee to get a job at the U.S. Army’s Camp Arifjan and had to work two-and-a-half years to pay off the loan his father had taken out to cover the fee.

These practices are widespread among private employers in the Middle East, where the legal status of migrant laborers is routinely tied to that of their employer. But the abuses described by the workers would appear to violate U.S. regulations against human trafficking by government contractors and subcontractors. These federal acquisition regulations ban the kind of recruitment fees detailed by workers at U.S. military bases, seek to bar involuntary servitude, which includes confiscation of passports, and requires contractors to police their subcontractors.

“The Department of Defense promotes the U.S. government’s zero tolerance policy on trafficking in persons,” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson, after being presented with the workers’ accounts. “The Department continues to work diligently on combating human trafficking because these activities violate human rights and harm our national security mission.”

The workers interviewed for this story are among the armies of men and women from Asia and Africa who do the manual and semiskilled labor that keeps U.S. military bases abroad running day after day. The U.S. military operates from more than a dozen bases and other installations in the Persian Gulf and neighboring Iraq and has used these locations to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and oppose Iranian activities in the region.

The military has grown deeply dependent on defense contractors and their legions of migrant hires. These workers travel to the Persian Gulf seeking employment opportunities vital for supporting relatives back home, though the pay is often relatively low and the hours long.

Most of those interviewed — like the thousands of other civilian workers on military bases — are employed by regional subcontractors, which in turn mainly work for major American defense companies. These include Vectrus and Amentum, which grew out of the major government contractor AECOM two years ago and acquired defense firms DynCorp and PAE.

In the past five years, the Pentagon has responded to 176 reported instances of labor trafficking on military bases in the Persian Gulf and beyond, in most cases by requiring better monitoring of employment practices, according to State Department reports reviewed by NBC News.

This story was produced as part of the Trafficking Inc. investigation by journalists from ICIJ, The Post, NBC, WGBH Boston, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Release papers and passports

A bus arrives at 4:30 a.m. at a labor camp south of Kuwait City to collect dozens of fatigued workers for their shifts at the U.S. Army’s Camp Arifjan. On only several hours of sleep, they’re transported to the base about 45 minutes away, then queue up with hundreds of others for security checks.

The workers, mainly from South Asia, are employed as mechanics and laborers by Kuwait Resources House (KRH), a large subcontractor for major defense firms at several American military bases in the Persian Gulf, including U.S.-headquartered Vectrus and Amentum. Current and former KRH workers on bases in Kuwait and Qatar interviewed for this story reported earning between $1.52 and $3.70 an hour, according to calculations by ICIJ and The Post based on their monthly wages and hours worked.

Ten current and former workers said many KRH employees cannot seek better-paying jobs, or in some cases, even go home, because the company blocks them from leaving.

“It’s not a good life. There’s not much freedom,” said a 38-year-old mechanic from India, who spoke on the condition that only his nickname, Aryan, be published for fear of retribution. He has worked for the company for six years and is ready to move on. “I am not getting a release. I want to leave,” he said, adding, “There are better companies here I want to work for.”

U.S. President George W. Bush addressing military personnel at U.S. Camp Arifjan in Kuwait in 2008. The base has played a pivotal role in military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the region. Image: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The mechanic said he and his colleagues have tried to alert managers at Vectrus, the defense firm he’s employed by KRH to work for, but they told him “they can’t interfere in my company.”

Asked by email to comment on specific allegations, including that it denied workers’ freedom of movement, KRH responded, “We would like to assure you that all the allegations you stated in your email are incorrect.” The company did not offer further specifics.

“Since day 1 of our operations, we have been the leader in honoring and abiding by Human Rights in every bit of our business practice. Since our core business is ‘Life Support and HR Solutions,’ Combating Trafficking in Persons has been an essential part of our practice,” the company said. KRH, which reports employing 10,000 workers across the region, added, “Over the years, we have accumulated a reputation that shines with pride on the level of ethical business practice we adopt, as we lead by example to the entire sector in the [Middle East] region.”

Mike Smith, a spokesman for Vectrus, said, “At Vectrus, we value all people and treat them with dignity and respect. We follow all United States labor laws, the laws in the countries were we operate, and demand our subcontractors do the same.”

In interviews, six current and former employees at five defense contractors in the region said their employers often take possession of workers’ passports.

The kafala system is abusive precisely because it grants such disproportionate power to employers over migrant workers. — Michael Page, Human Rights Watch

By confiscating workers’ identity documents, contractors wield more control over their employees and guarantee their obedience, said Sam McCahon, a former federal prosecutor who spent nine years in the Middle East as a military contract law specialist and U.S. Army procurement fraud attorney. “If you have my passport, I can’t go work for a competitor or anyone else. I have to stay with you,” said McCahon.

Even if they could hold onto their passports, several employees said they remain stuck because of a requirement, under the so-called kafala system, that workers obtain release papers from their employer before moving to another job.

“The kafala system is abusive precisely because it grants such disproportionate power to employers over migrant workers,” said Michael Page, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “When employers are allowed to confiscate a worker’s passport or deny a migrant worker the ability to change jobs, this undermines not only the worker’s power to decide where to work but even the ability to leave abusive situations. At its worst, this reality can even lead to situations of forced labor.”

Two years ago, Qatar introduced reforms stipulating that workers should keep their passports in their own possession and abolishing the use of release papers. But contract workers in Qatar said they are still required to get permission from their current employer before they can move to a new job.

“They always say we will provide your release papers soon, but they never do,” said Sree Kumar from India, who worked for four years for KRH at the huge Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. “One of my friends got a chance for a job with another company, but our company didn’t provide a release letter, and he lost it.”

Dilip Gurung, a 32-year-old warehouse specialist from Nepal, said he had to fight to get permission from KRH, a subcontractor for Amentum in Qatar, before he traveled home in 2019 for emergency surgery to remove a benign tumor from his head.

His requests for permission were repeatedly rebuffed over several days, during which he was forced to work despite excruciating pain, he said. When he was finally allowed to travel, he had to take unpaid leave, he added.

“We have our passport all the time, as that is Amentum’s guideline,” said Gurung. “But having our passports on hand doesn’t mean we are free to leave.”

Exorbitant recruitment fees

Gurung’s difficulties began even before he set foot in Qatar. After applying for a job with KRH in 2016, he was ushered by an employment broker into a small office at a recruitment agency in the outskirts of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, and instructed to hand over 150,000 Nepali rupees, or about $1,400 in cash, he recounted. To get the contract, Gurung was required to pay a recruitment fee equal to five months of his salary as a teacher in Nepal.

“If you don’t pay, they will not send you overseas,” Gurung recalled. “Although I knew it wasn’t legal, I had no choice.”

He said the recruiter pressured him to declare on video that he’d only paid a small amount in administrative fees, which are legally permissible in Nepal but capped at 10,000 Nepali rupees, or about $93 at that time. Only then was he given a job with KRH.

Photo of Dilip Gurung sitting in a forest near his home in Nepal
Dilip Gurung, a 32-year-old warehouse specialist from Nepal, worked for KRH, a subcontractor for Amentum in Qatar. Image: Sagar Chhetri / The Washington Post

Charging recruitment fees of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars is commonplace, workers said. In interviews, 19 current or former workers at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf reported paying fees ranging from $250 to $6,000. Often, the workers are compelled to sell personal assets, such as their vehicles, and take out high-interest loans to cover the fees. Gurung said he took out a loan with an annual interest rate of 36%.

KRH said allegations that its workers paid recruitment fees were incorrect.

Mohammed, the Bangladeshi food services worker, was 18 years old when a recruiter required him to pay $6,000 for a job at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. He said he and his close co-workers for a Saudi Arabia-based contractor, Tamimi Global, all had to pay recruiting fees and Tamimi managers “told us not to tell people that we paid.”

To cover the cost, his father, a retired farmer, took out a loan for $4,000 and cashed in his remaining retirement savings, Mohammed recalled. But his family believed it would all be worth it. He said the recruiter promised that Tamimi would pay about $1,300 a month.

Instead, when he arrived in Kuwait in 2017, he was told his starting salary would be $260 a month, he recounted, forcing him to work 2½ years to pay back the loan.

Misfer al-Malki, manager of Tamimi’s human resources and administration department, said the company seeks to comply fully with U.S. laws and regulations and has a compliance level that “meets and exceeds” its contract requirements.

“Tamimi has recruitment procedures and does not take money from staff. We do not deny that there are inappropriate recruitment procedures in the region and that is why we have to be vigilant, but we do everything we can to avoid our staff being caught by them,” he said.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has concluded that recruitment fees can put workers into “debt bondage,” forced to spend most of their wages paying off the loans and unable to quit potentially exploitative jobs. GAO considers this a feature of labor trafficking.

“We have very clear regulations now saying that you cannot charge recruitment fees,” said Latesha Love, director of international affairs and trade at the GAO. “Holding passports and things of that nature are not something that can be done on contracts with our federal dollars.”

The GAO most recently investigated working conditions at overseas military bases last year. The agency, which is an investigative arm of Congress, called on the Defense Department to address weaknesses in its oversight of contractors and its reporting of internal investigations into human trafficking conducted between 2015 and 2020.

I think it’s a mutual understanding. The American managers know about the fee, and they say nothing. They avoid talking about it. — Al Udeid worker Sree Kumar, from India

According to nine workers, American contractors on the military bases are aware that their employees have been forced to pay recruitment fees but have not tried to stop the practice.

“One day, we shared with our project manager that we had paid this fee, but he said [the company is] helpless,” said Kumar, the former KRH worker at Al Udeid Air Base. “I think it’s a mutual understanding. The American managers know about the fee, and they say nothing. They avoid talking about it.”

McCahon, the former military procurement fraud lawyer, said that charging low-paid migrant workers recruitment fees for jobs on U.S. overseas military bases is an “institutionalized” business practice.

“If that person is indebted to get the job, they’re more malleable, which means essentially, you can do anything you want to them. You can cheat them, abuse them, anything,” said McCahon. The U.S. Constitution, he noted, “prohibits indentured servitude. Yet, we’re not only tolerating it. The U.S. taxpayer actually pays the trafficker.”

U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircrafts at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Image: OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Previous public warnings

Federal acquisition regulations require contractors to adopt measures aimed at preventing recruitment agents and subcontractors from engaging in human trafficking and terminate relationships with business partners in breach of anti-trafficking laws.

Love, the GAO official, said Pentagon contracting officials are supposed to be looking for signs of abuses, such as recruitment fees and the confiscation of identity documents. In practice, however, there is little enforcement of the regulations, she said.

“Often, federal agencies have very little visibility into what’s happening at the subcontractor level because the subcontractors don’t report directly back to the U.S. government,” Love said.

Schwegman, the Defense Department spokesperson, said the Pentagon had taken steps in recent years to address labor trafficking, for instance by adding training for procurement personnel and highlighting for military agencies and commands their role in reporting employment abuses. She said these measures came on top of steps, taken in 2013 in response to reported abuses, designed to publicize workers’ rights and enhance oversight.

There has been no lack of public warnings about possible employment abuses by military contractors and their subcontractors.

In 2017, for instance, U.S. military investigators examined allegations that Tamimi, which was hired to feed military personnel in Kuwait, had violated anti-human trafficking rules in its pay and employment practices, and proposed barring the company from receiving future contracts.

While Tamimi rejected the allegations, it signed a compliance agreement with the U.S. Army agreeing, in part, to improve its training programs and hire an independent compliance monitor.

And in March, a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland ruled that 29 Kuwaiti translators could go forward with a lawsuit claiming that two military contractors currently owned by Amentum were responsible for an array of abusive practices — including confiscating the linguists’ passports and aiding in a “Kuwait government manhunt” that put them at risk of arrest if they tried to quit their jobs and leave the country.

Amentum did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In court filings in the translators’ lawsuit, the Amentum units deny wrongdoing.

Some of the oldest concerns go back to the years following the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, when the U.S. military dramatically escalated its presence in the region. In 2006, for example, authorities in India barred Kuwait & Gulf Link Holding Co. — a Kuwait-registered logistics and transportation firm operating on bases in the Persian Gulf — from hiring Indian employees. Indian authorities claimed KGL had lured workers to work in war-torn Iraq by falsely promising they were going to get jobs in Kuwait, according to a U.S. Senate document.

KGL did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Anil Lama, a former I.T. worker for KGL at an American military installation in Kuwait. Image: Uma Bista / The Washington Post

Today, KGL’s workers are again sharing complaints about the company, which continues to receive large U.S. military contracts. In interviews, three current and former KGL workers said the employment firms that placed them with KGL forced them to pay illegal recruitment fees. Two of them said that KGL also has prevented some low-paid laborers from leaving their jobs.

“People have been stuck there for years because they can’t get their release papers. The company doesn’t want to pay new laborers more money,” said Anil Lama, a former I.T. worker for KGL at an American military installation in Kuwait.

A 32-year-old Indian man, who said he has worked for KGL as a driver for five years after paying a $1,250 recruitment fee, explained he was afraid to ask the company for his release papers because such requests by his co-workers had already been denied.

“Some of my colleagues have completed eight years of work. Even then, release papers are not given,” he said. “There are many problems.”

Katie McQue is a freelance journalist for ICIJ and The Washington Post.

Contributors: Agustin Armendariz (ICIJ), Emilia Díaz Struck (ICIJ), Yousef H. Alshammari (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism), Andy Lehren (NBC News), Molly Boigon (NBC News), Laura Strickler (NBC News), Anna Schecter (NBC News), and Courtney Kube (NBC News).