Karl Marx lived at a time when the horrors of slavery were on full display. He wrote extensively about the US Civil War and the plantation economy’s relationship to capitalism. The English textile industry’s dependence on the atrocities committed in the Slave South fueled the slave trade. The entire Western Hemisphere was blighted by the slavocracy’s brutality in the pursuit of profits. By some estimates, as many as 100–200 million Africans were killed during the course of the 400-year Atlantic Slave Trade.
In modern times, we often like to think that wage labor has won out, and that the barbaric practice of slavery was simply an “artifact” of an older, crueler age. This is false. True, the wage labor-capital relationship is now the predominant form of exploitation, but where the conditions allow, capital does not hesitate to use any method it can to accumulate wealth. In 2016, the International Labor Organization estimated that 25 million people worldwide were in bondage as forced laborers, not including victims of sex trafficking. 2.4 million of these were in the United States—not including some two million US prisoners classified as slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment. A 2018 report by the UN concluded that the number of forced human trafficking victims has increased every year since 2010. In other words, slavery never went away, it just became less visible, and its scale is shocking.
One of the biggest patrons of labor trafficking is the US Department of Defense. In 2017, Tamimi Group, a Saudi conglomerate that services hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts for US bases in the Middle East, was found to be in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act for a food service contract in Ali-Al-Salem Air Base in Kuwait. This came after a 2011 scandal in which the company was fined $11 million dollars for similar violations.
The report found that Tamimi had lured workers from Bangladesh to the Middle East with promises of lucrative contracts paying $1,000 a month. The workers were told that they would be working at hotels in the UAE. The reality awaiting them was far grimmer. Instead, they found themselves in Kuwait, working on US military bases in the dining facilities, living six-to-a-room in shacks and shipping containers in the desert. Their passports were confiscated, preventing them from leaving, and they found that the contracts they had signed, which often were not in their native language, only paid out $400 a month.
My direct experience with this was instrumental in opening my eyes to the brutal nature of imperialism. When on active duty, I have deployed as a TCN (Third Country National) escort. The TCNs I worked with, who were hired by Tamimi, only received two days off a month and worked more than twelve-hour shifts. I personally witnessed a company representative arrive at the base with the TCNs, hand them all their passports so they could be registered with the base, then confiscate them afterwards—an action which is included on the Department of Defense checklist for detecting human trafficking.
The TCNs frequently reported not being paid on time and that they were physically abused by their supervisors. A female TCN told me that she had been sexually assaulted by her supervisor. This led to an infuriating process of trying to navigate every law enforcement agency on base, the contracting office, my chain of command, the SAPR (Sexual Assault Prevention) office, and even the local police, trying to report the assault, while being shunted from one agency to the next. In the end, nothing was done to address the abuse.
Sexual abuse and trafficking by contractors is a huge problem, prevalent throughout imperialism’s war machine. In 1999, DynCorp, a US-based defense contractor, was infamously outed because its employees were operating a massive sexual exploitation ring in Bosnia. DynCorp employees, who were in Bosnia to service a $15 million police training contract, were raping girls as young as 12, and even kept them on the base. DynCorp never received so much as a slap on the wrist from the government, and the whistleblower who uncovered the whole thing had to be placed under CID protection (Criminal Investigation Command) due to death threats.
In 2009, it was revealed that DynCorp, who were working in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, had used operations funds to purchase “dancing boys.” Allegedly, this was done to placate local warlords who have a taste for that sort of thing. But internal memos show that DynCorp employees participated in the sexual abuse of these boys as well. Coincidentally, at the same time as Oxfam and the NGO industrial complex was under fire for participating in sex trafficking during Haiti relief efforts, DynCorp was providing training for Haiti’s police and building new prisons.
This is not unique to DynCorp. The employees of Sallyport Global, which in 2017 serviced a $700-million-dollar contract at Balad Air Base, Iraq, were investigated for running a prostitution ring. There are hundreds more stories of abuses by defense contractors. It is a systemic issue, one that is embedded in the contractor culture—I’ll never forget the time I witnessed a Northrop Grumman employee yelling at a TCN because the TCN didn’t serve him enough spaghetti.
The reasons for the callous behavior of defense contractors are deeply rooted in capitalism. Because the contractors bid for their contracts, and they receive the same amount of money regardless of performance, their profits are determined by how much they can cut costs—the biggest being labor. By “acquiring” third country nationals and shipping them into war zones, they create a pool of bonded labor, dependent on the company for everything from food to security. Knowing that these laborers have no legal rights, and that US law protects the companies, contractors no longer need to treat them as wage laborers—they can be treated like what they are: slaves. This is the sick reality of capitalism as we approach the third decade of the 21st century. Only by overthrowing global capitalism can the horrors of slavery truly become a thing of the past.