Abdulla thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
After struggling to find work in his home country of Bangladesh, he said a recruiter offered him a chance to work in a restaurant thousands of miles away in Kuwait City for the equivalent of $660 a month.
There was a catch: He would have to pay a hefty fee — about $10,250 — but he figured it was worth it. He says his mother got loans to cover the fee and he flew to Kuwait in January 2016. He was 21.
Abdulla said he arrived to broken promises.
He would not be working in a restaurant. Instead, he says, the company that hired him, Tamimi Global Co., sent him to wash dishes at Camp Buehring, a U.S. Army base in Kuwait. He said his salary was about $260, less than half of what was promised, and he worked 12 hours a day with no days off for almost three years.
Abdulla, whose real name is being withheld because he fears retaliation, signed a contract and handed over his passport.
He was among about 400 workers, he said, who did the same.
“What can we do?” he said. “I missed my mom. I cried every day.”
Abdulla is one of thousands of people allegedly trafficked into labor by private contractors on U.S. military bases — where workers have been paid less than promised, charged recruiting fees that leave them deep in debt, and pressured to sign improper contracts and work long hours, according to government reports. In some cases, they even faced physical abuse.
NBC News, in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Washington Post, and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, interviewed more than 40 current and former employees of contractors at military bases. NBC News combed through thousands of pages of congressional testimony, reports from the Justice and the Defense departments, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, and other documents to reveal which companies were accused of trafficking workers or determined to have trafficked them.
What NBC News found was a lack of transparency, both in what the Pentagon is willing to tell the public about alleged taxpayer-funded abuse of workers, and what its officials share with each other and other agencies about companies with troubled records.
From fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2021, the military itself took action in 176 incidents of labor violations by military contractors and subcontractors, according to State Department records reviewed for this article, and substantiated violations involving more than 900 workers in fiscal 2020 alone, according to the Justice Department.
Though such information is supposed to be public, the Pentagon would not disclose the names of the contractors with violations, despite multiple inquiries, including Freedom of Information Act requests.
Federal regulations say that the company names and information about violations must be entered in a contracting database. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last year that military contracting officers were not entering information about violations into the database.
The GAO also said that investigators for the Army and the Pentagon’s inspector general were not reporting the results of all their own trafficking investigations, and that the Pentagon does little to flag companies that have trafficked workers. For at least six years, military officials haven’t flagged a single firm in the database.
That means the government’s lack of transparency is internal, as well as external. Because Defense officials do not share trafficking information with one another or with other agencies, contracting officers throughout the government may not know they’re giving new contracts to companies with past problems.
And those companies keep getting work. According to an NBC News analysis, at least 10 companies with substantiated trafficking violations since 2007 have received billions in new government contracts.
“Our taxpayer dollars are being used potentially to support forced labor and human trafficking and that’s just unacceptable,” said Latesha Love, a director at the GAO’s International Affairs and Trade team, which has repeatedly probed labor trafficking on U.S. military bases.
“The way that [workers] are treated is similar to what some might call modern-day slavery.”
Tamimi, Abdulla’s employer, said it could not comment “on generalizations of former staff or on ongoing procedural issues.” Tamimi said the company is “an excellent employer who cares deeply for their staff.”
Abdulla is still in Kuwait but no longer works on a base or for Tamimi.