Skip to main content

As part of our series on working conditions in the private security industry we interviewed Noah Coburn about his book “Under Contract, The Invisible Workers of America’s Global War”. Noah Coburn is Professor of Anthropology at Bennington College. He is one of the few contemporary anthropologists with years of on-the-ground field research experience in Afghanistan.

Most of the work on American bases has been outsourced to private firms that then contract out individual jobs, often to the lowest bidder. An “American” base in Afghanistan or Iraq will be staffed with workers from places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey, Bosnia, and Nepal: so-called “third-country nationals.” Noah Coburn traces this unseen workforce across seven countries, following the workers’ often zigzagging journey to war.

This is the final part of our two-part interview series with Noah Coburn, where we focus on the driving factors of working conditions, the implications of working conditions, and outlooks to improve the industry.



What do you think are the key factors that are driving these inadequate or sometimes unfair working conditions in the industry?

A lot of it is about transparency. Some of the interesting approaches to improving the working conditions that I’ve seen are the certified organic stamp of approval that a company can get, like we don’t do human trafficking, we are certified as following these standards. It shows that a company sees some value in acting ethically when they do this. The problem is, particularly in conflict zones, there’s very little incentive to act ethically. So why would I not try to hire the cheapest workers whose deaths would cost me the least and somewhat connected to this?

In Afghanistan, wages for Nepalis decreased during the course of the war. This was in part because supply increased and more and more Nepalis were going over there. But it was also because a lot of these companies realized that skills didn’t matter as much as they thought they did. Even the US embassy, by the end, would hire two or three real Gurkhas who had Western military experience in training and then they would pair them up with about 50 Nepali civilians, kids who had little to no military experience. That just sort of made sure you had one guy there who could yell instructions at people. More importantly, you had one guy there who spoke English and could interface with the Western guards at the top of the hierarchy. But it was cheaper to hire people without any experience.

Do you see a link between the working conditions of guards and the human rights compliance of private security companies as they are delivering security services?

Absolutely. First, there is the respect for the Human Rights of the guards themselves. The most obvious example of this is described in the book “The Girl from Kathmandu” by Cam Simpson, a journalist who tracked a woman whose husband was killed among a group of nine Nepalis who were being trafficked by a Jordanian labour firm into Iraq. They were travelling on a dangerous road that was susceptible to kidnapping, being transported by a trafficker who didn’t want to pay the cost of flying them to Iraq. If that firm had been paying just to fly them there, that attack would have never happened.

When you talk about working conditions and risks, you have this incredible inverse relationship between risks and compensation depending on your race. Around embassies or UN compounds, there are multiple layers of security, there are usually at least four and the outermost ring is the most dangerous. It is also highly racialised and the least well compensated. On the outermost ring are Afghan locals who sort of man that outer wall. The next layer is oftentimes the Nepali Gurkhas. The next layer is the Eastern Europeans who are oftentimes Romanians or Bosnians. Then finally, in the command hub, you get the white Western Europeans, the Americans or white South Africans. Those guys are getting paid potentially 1000 USD a day. The group on the outside makes maybe $200 a month. And now when a car bomb goes off, who dies? The guards on the outside are very likely to die. The guards on the inside are very, very, very, unlikely to die. Most development organizations might not have as many layers of security, but they similarly put the poor locals on the outside and the expensive internationals on the inside.

When it comes to Human Rights abuse against the populations, you need to realize that in the conflict zones, the foreign guards are unlikely to actually interact with locals other than to tell them to stay away. And that’s also tied into some of the fear things that I was saying before, that companies really wanted the Nepalis to be afraid of the Afghans because it then meant that they wouldn’t go anywhere and they were taught to fear them at all costs. I lived right down the street from a couple of these compounds in just a house in Afghanistan with no guard, just a dog and a couple of friends. I would tell Nepalis this and they were appalled that I lived in a place with no security there as they believed that you had to have security in Afghanistan. They were getting told by their company that all Afghans were trying to kill them. So I’m sure that that leads to incidents: you hear about guards opening fire on cars that come too close and killing civilians because they think there’s a roadside bomb in the car.

Could you connect these incidents then to the resentment and fear that the company is preaching? It seems very likely to me. We felt it was more like the proximity with the people which can create problems, but actually, the fear would create possibilities for abuse.

In your opinion what are the best practices in terms of working conditions in the industry?

Some of the firms are proactive in the trafficking component saying they are not going to outsource the labor recruitment to a labor recruitment firm which is likely just to traffic people.

We need industry scorecards: a way that you could sort of rate companies based on some sort of evidence and give people gold stars for doing the right thing. Many of the white guards that I have interviewed are also appalled by the treatment of the other guards. So there are ways of advocating within the system. Companies don’t really interact with each other to improve standards and more could be done.

I have never heard anything as in-depth as an interview where the guards were asked whether they liked their job. I can’t think of any guard that I interviewed who had been interviewed before. One of the reasons this project was so easy in Afghanistan was because all these guards wanted to talk to me as they felt that nobody had ever asked them about their work.

Are there any sort of internal mechanisms in these companies that are doing real assessment, internal assessment of the conditions? Or are there some tools that ICoCA could hand to companies that could enable them to do that? I want to believe that clients are willing to pay more to save themselves from the embarrassment of working with a company that traffics people, doesn’t pay good wages, don’t do any development. Some companies and organizations want to be perceived as not exploiting their security guards. Yet because they outsource that security contract, they end up in these situations but they don’t know how else to do it. These companies don’t know the right questions to ask. So they think they’re doing a good thing and then don’t realize that there are all these repercussions.

I’m glad that ICoCA is digging into these issues because nobody else is doing it. Looking at my own research, I could never get the number of contractors in Afghanistan because neither the US nor the contracting companies want you to know it. The Nepali government can’t track all the Nepalis that are going out. So nobody actually knew the number of Nepalis in Afghanistan, nobody wanted to know.

We thank Noah Coburn for sharing his insight on this important topic! Stay tuned as we continue to unpack working conditions through our interview series. 





The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).