Exclusive: Inside Diego Garcia, America’s highly secretive military base

A two year investigation reveals the US military’s poor treatment of contract workers on the controversial island. Katie McQue reports

An aerial view of Diego Garcia island, part of the Chagos Archipelago in the Central Indian Ocean (22 November 2013). by U.S. Navy photo/Released

When Danilo* tore open his first pay slip at his new job, the amount staring back at him was just six dollars. This was his pay for a whole month working as a warehouse caretaker.

It was 2007, and Danilo had begun his two-year contract on the secretive US military base known as Diego Garcia, located on a small island in the Indian Ocean.

This paltry salary was because of hiring costs he was made to pay to his new employer upon starting his job for the US military and the remittance he was required by contract to send to his family in the Philippines.

‘Six dollars was all I got to spend before my next payday. Dang!’ he says. ‘Who would be happy with that?’

Things did not improve throughout his years on Diego Garcia. Five years later his total annual earnings for 2012 stood near to USD$2,200, according to pay-slips seen by the New Internationalist. In 2015, his monthly earnings were around $450 per month, for working a minimum of nine hours per day, six days per week. This works out at about $2 per hour.

Diego Garcia
Image obtained by New Internationalist.

Diego Garcia’s non-military staff are almost exclusively from the Philippines. This is because they can be hired for much lower wages than employees from other countries, since jobs in the Philippines are scarce, several workers have said.

Jobs on offer on Diego Garcia include positions as cleaners, warehouse caretakers, and construction workers that spend long days working in the 40-degree heat of the tropical island.

Cheap labour practices on Diego Garcia have spanned decades, and with knowledge and complicity of the US government, documents passed to the New Internationalist reveal.

Over the past two years the New Internationalist has interviewed 11 current and former workers about pay and conditions on the island. They spoke on the condition of their anonymity due to fear of repercussions.

Image obtained by New Internationalist.

Some of the workers have told New Internationalist they believe that the contract hiring organization exclusively hires Filipinos because they come from a poor country and will accept lower salaries.

Most workers are hired through a contract firm, Centerra Parsons LLC. This is a limited liability company, created for contracting work on the base. Centerra Parsons specifically recruits Filipino workers. Those interviewed have said Centerra Parsons and the US Department of Defense capitalizes on their desperation by paying salaries that are low, even by standards in the Philippines.

Working overtime can be unlimited. Desperate for money to send home, says Arvin*, an engineer, often risks his health to work 12 hour days, 7 days per week, for periods of several months at a time. Having worked on Diego Garcia for 8 years, he has been promoted twice. His salary is now $2.50 per hour – which is considered high compared with some of his colleagues.

The Diego Garcia Island is part of the UK-owned Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean from where the British Army forcefully evicted the indigenous Chagossian population in the 1960s, before leasing it to the United States. It has since hosted America’s largest overseas airbase. Because of its notoriety, the base is shrouded in secrecy.

Guided-missile submarine USS Florida pulls into Diego Garcia 7 January 2016. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zachary A. Kreitzer/Released.

Only military employees are allowed to set foot there and no journalist has been allowed to visit Diego Garcia since the establishment of the base. The UK announced in November that it is planning to extend the US’s lease for the island for a further 20 years, up until 2036.

Meanwhile, Diego Garcia’s refugees have been left in poverty and uncompensated. Their fight to return to their motherland continues to this day.

The UK also ruled in October 2016 that Chagossian refugees would not be allowed to return home. This was the latest blow in the refugees’ four-decade long fight to go back to the Island.

The island has allegedly served host to the CIA’s post-9/11 secret rendition program, where terror suspects were held and tortured. Former UK foreign secretaries Jack Straw and David Miliband have both denied these allegations, yet a US Senate Intelligence report has stated that suspected terrorists were detained there.

Diego Garcia's Public Works Department hosts its first Construction Contractor's Forum 26 February 2014.

Some 1,000 US Military personnel and almost 2,500 contract workers are based on the Island.

Stationed on the Island base, Arvin remains distant from his family. He has a daughter aged 7 and a son that is 10-years-old. He hasn’t seen them since April 2016 and won’t until April 2018, which is when his work contract ends. To block the pain of this separation he drinks – almost every night. A 12-pack of Miller Light costs nine dollars on the duty-free military base. Sometimes he finishes all 12 cans in one sitting.

‘The hangovers are bad. My supervisor gets angry. We drink lots because we’re homesick. I have no choice, in my situation,' he says. ‘I cannot see my kids grow up.’

A lot of workers drink to cope, says Danilo. ‘When you are too drunk because of being homesick, it is either you end up in a brawl or on a bed with a dude. That’s the reality on Diego Garcia,’ he adds.

Personnel assigned to U.S. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia commemorate the holidays with caroling at the base chapel, 18 December 2013.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caine Storino/Released

Nimuel*, 28, earns $400 per month working as a domestic helper on the base. He sends most of this home to support his girlfriend and infant son. When asked about the last time he saw his baby, his reply is: ‘Only on Facebook’.

Some Filipino workers are employed directly by the US Navy, and they have seen their wages slashed in cost-saving efforts by the military. Schemes have included indexing salaries to the volatile Philippine peso that resulted in a net decrease of 44 per cent, according to calculations by the US Navy.

In one leaked document a Naval Commander writes that the cut is inconsequential because the ‘employees reportedly believe they are not permitted to form a union.’

New Internationalist has also seen a contract imposing a wage reduction that a female worker was made to sign before she was allowed to leave the island to tend to a personal issue in the Philippines. Other workers have been threatened with being fired if they did not sign contracts that required them to take a pay cut, Navy documents show.

Knowledge of the situation has travelled as high as the House of Representatives, who absolves the United States of responsibility to these workers. A letter dated 2001 states ‘The US Navy, who hires Filipino Third Country Nationals [non-US workers employed overseas], does not have to comply with US Labor standard salary and compensation laws.’

Members of the US Navy have long been shocked when they learn the salaries of their Filipino colleagues. James Patrick, a Commanding Officer of Diego Garcia in the early 2000’s, was compelled to write in a Department of Defense cable that the pay policy is an ‘injustice’, especially considering the employees are living and working in a US dollar-based economy.

‘This situation is seriously affecting TCN [overseas worker] morale, will significantly lower their standard of living,’ Patrick continued in the cable.

When employees arrive on Diego Garcia they have the option to surrender their passports to their employers, New Internationalist understands.

‘Having your passport with you was a risk, in case you lose it or try to do something stupid,’ said Cristanto*, a former worker. ‘In case you have an opportunity to fly away without permission.’

If somebody does want to break their contract to go home early, there can be fines involved, one former US military veteran who was stationed on Diego Garcia says. He met and fell in love with a woman working on the base. For her to leave with him to get married when his tour on the island finished he had to pay a penalty of about USD $3200 to her employer, the United Seamen’s Service. Only then was she allowed to have her documents back.

This situation was typical at the time, he noted.

The US Department of Defense did not respond to the New Internationalist’s request for a comment on the pay issues for Filipinos on Diego Garcia.

Centerra Parsons told the New Internationalist that: ‘Our employees’ base salaries start at the mandated minimum of $400 monthly and progressively increase based upon position category and responsibilities.’

Centerra Parsons also conceded that it deliberately sources low-cost labour.

‘There are lower-cost labour sources available from other Asian and African countries, but we have chosen to hire from the Philippines because of the wealth of skills, abilities and tremendous first-hand knowledge they bring from years of supporting the island community,’ it added.

Diego Garcia
Firefighters assigned to G4S/Parsons Pacific on Diego Garcia escort a simulated victim of a natural disaster during Exercise Reliant Gale 1 May 2014. US Pacific Fleet

Work on the island is not always safe. Two former employees told the New Internationalist about accidents and industrial-related deaths occurring over recent years.

The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, who are responsible for recording deaths on Diego Garcia provided the New Internationalist with a list of five industrial fatalities that have occurred since 2000, it includes a death caused by ‘extensive head and face crush injuries’. The list, however, is incomplete. When the New Internationalist pointed out to the FCO that it knew of at least one death that had not been included on the list, the FCO acknowledged the omission and that there had also been delays in recording some deaths.

The pay policy for Diego Garcia directly conflicts with US Department of Defense guidelines, says American lawyer Michael O’Hara, of Michael A. O’Hara, PLLC in Kentucky.

Guidelines state foreign national employees will be based on the prevailing wage rates and compensation practices (for comparable work in comparable industries) in the country concerned, which should refer to the UK.

‘They are discriminating based on the national origin of the workers,’ O’Hara says.

‘Diego Garcia is part of the UK. Rather, they’re compensated in comparison with the Philippines,’ says O’Hara. ‘Diego Garcia is not surrounded by the Philippines’s economy. It is also in the middle of nowhere, 12,000km from the nearest landmass. While workers are sending some money back to the Philippines, they are still living in the host country’s economy and they deserve to be paid as that.’

*Names changed to protect identity of those interviewed.