The Dancing Cowboy Whistleblower
More than a week ago, I had the pleasure of writing about the role of whistleblowers in exposing serious abuses against foreign workers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The full post, which you can read on The New Yorker’s blog, features the story of a colorful Texan hell-raiser I’ve gotten to know named Mike Land — a former KBR labor foreman in Baghdad who stood up on behalf of his Indian and Filipino workers, and not without consequences. (There are photos, too, and a copy of the surprising letter of reprimand Land earned from KBR.)
I barely had the space to delve into Land’s story on the blog. As a result, I’m hoping to post more about his crazy travails soon. Land’s a great writer himself, and he’s typed up some poignant accounts of his friendships with third-country nationals in Iraq, which — with his green light — I’ll share here. In the meantime, the blog post’s below; I hope it will encourage other whistleblowers to get in touch and share their stories.
The Dancing Cowboy Whistleblower
In the June 6th issue of the magazine, my “Invisible Army” piece told the story of foreign workers on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. The allegations on which I reported—tales of deceptive recruitment, unpaid wages, sexual assault, and conditions resembling indentured servitude faced by some foreign subcontract workers of the Pentagon—were cited yesterday in federal hearings of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.
One of the commission’s members, Dov Zakheim, called the situation described in the article “a major scandal for the United States,” and asked the State Department’s Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy what was being done about these sorts of “shocking” abuses. What he was trying to get a handle on, from a policy standpoint, is what several readers have now asked me from a human one: Are there any signs of meaningful reform, or any efforts to which we can lend our support?
At the highest levels of governance, I’m not so sure. But in the worker camps on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve met dozens of whistleblowers whose stories merit telling. Some are U.S. soldiers; others are foreign and American contractors. They have spoken out on behalf of the wars’ vast support forces from places like Fiji, Sierra Leone, and Nepal, occasionally at great risk to themselves and their jobs.
One man in particular stands out: a former employee at KBR, a global engineering and construction company, named Mike Land. Land calls himself a Texas cowboy. For nearly four years, he worked as a labor foreman in Baghdad. In my article, I alluded to his efforts to confront Prime Projects International, a Dubai-based subcontractor of KBR, about the dismal living conditions of the Indian and Filipino men he supervised. (Sadly, he didn’t make much headway; after Land left Iraq, I uncovered a massive food riot that took place on the same base complex last summer, involving more than twelve hundred angry South Asian men.)
But Land’s story is even more interesting. He first arrived in Iraq in 2004, a rugged entrepreneur-turned-contractor searching for a steady paycheck after a business deal gone awry. He was tasked with supervising ten Indian workers who cleaned soldiers’ showers and toilets. Only a few of the men spoke basic English, and Land didn’t speak any Telugu or Tamil, the men’s local dialects. So he began hosting regular English lessons for his workers, converting an empty shipping container into a schoolhouse and using children’s books sent by his wife, who was back in the U.S. Morning tutorials included cartoon-heavy safety briefings like the one pictured below: “Don’t touch ‘Boom Boom.’”
Land also goofed around with his workers. On birthdays and holidays, he’d host raucous dance parties in a twenty-foot shipping container; he’d teach what he called his “ten little Indians” to two-step to George Strait, and they’d show him dance moves from their hometowns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. (“The guys loved music as much as I do, but I have to say their Indian music was like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears,” he says. “And they didn’t care much for country music. So we took turns.”)
He sometimes led covert missions to the dump, where hungry workers picked through leftover food that U.S. soldiers had discarded, mostly treats like pudding, cookies, and fruit cups.
And he made a habit of speaking up for his workers when conditions caused alarm. After one found a writhing mealworm on his lunch plate, Land marched into the KBR office and demanded of his boss, “Would you eat this shit?” When another of the Indians, a young man named Raju, had a painfully infected wisdom tooth, Land lobbied to gain him access to the medical facility afforded to American contractors on the base. (He says the PPI camp had some six thousand workers and no dentist at the time.)
For his efforts, Land received a letter of reprimand from KBR, telling him that if he didn’t “refrain from further involvement regarding the working and living conditions of the sub-contract workers,” he could be fired. The full memo, which he provided to us, can be found below. (Click on the arrows in the lower-left corner to expand.) You’ll notice that, several times, KBR uses the term “none of your business” to describe Land’s inquiries into his workers’ circumstances. Other phrases: “out of your lane,” “not your responsibility,” and “disruptive to maintaining a harmonious relationship between KBR and one of its Strategic Partners, PPI.”
When reached for comment on the various abuses by its subcontractors that I detail in the piece, a KBR spokesperson directed me to the company’s Code of Business Conduct, which enshrines the rights of its employees and subcontractors “to be treated with dignity and respect.” “We actively encourage our employees to raise issues of concern through the proper channels and processes the company has in place,” she added.
Last month in the magazine, Jane Mayer wrote a piece on whistleblowers at the highest levels of government who face prosecution for what some consider efforts “to bring attention to what [they] saw as multibillion-dollar mismanagement.” In light of stories like Mike Land’s, it’s worth noting that there are also many whistleblowers at the ground level in America’s war on terror—men and women who’ve tried to look out for the Pentagon’s foreign workforce, despite the risks.