The Forgotten Workforce

Almost fifteen years after the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan, the impact of American involvement in the Middle East continues to unfold. One effect seldom discussed is the enormous toll the Afghan and Iraq wars have had on migrant laborers recruited by U.S. military contractors to provide support services for ongoing reconstruction efforts (e.g., security, catering, janitorial, laundry).

One of these workers was Gunaraj Dahal. In 2009, Mr. Dahal worked for Supreme Food, a catering company that provides meals to the military in Afghanistan. One day while he was working a refrigeration unit crushed Mr. Dahal’s leg, permanently injuring him and rendering him unable to work. His employer merely put him on a plane back to Nepal, hoping to never hear from him again.

What Mr. Dahal did not know at the time was that he was protected by a U.S. workers’ compensation law, the Defense Base Act. The act provides disability and death benefits to workers employed under a U.S. contract or subcontract if they are injured or killed in the line of work, even if they are not U.S. citizens or residents.

Fortunately, through a network of non-profit organizations, Mr. Dahal found the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. We recently recovered $45,000 from Supreme Food to compensate Mr. Dahal for the injury he suffered seven years ago.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dahal’s story is far too common. Potentially thousands of migrant laborers have been injured or killed while supporting U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most do not know they are protected by the Defense Base Act. And their employers have largely avoided informing them or their families of their rights. Instead, their employers often do what Supreme Food did to Mr. Dahal—send them back on the next plane to their country of origin, hoping that they will never seek compensation.

For the past three years, the WLC and our law firm partners have pursued claims on behalf of migrant workers who have been injured and killed while employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far we have recovered more than $3 million for these workers and their families. We are proud to play a role in correcting these injustices and recognizing the services provided by this workforce.

For more information or if you are interested in volunteering on one of these matters, Matt Handley.

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