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Vinnell, Brown and Root at Turkey's Incirlik Airbase

by Pratap Chatterjee and Sasha LilleySpecial to CorpWatch
March 20th, 2003

Incirlik -- which means place of the fig orchard -- was transformed from its fruit growing origins in 1951 when United States military engineers teamed up with the US company Metcalfe, Hamilton, and Grove to construct the current base just outside the Mediterranean city of Adana in eastern Turkey.

Initially it provided a base for Central Intelligence Agency spy missions in the 1950s when U-2 aircraft were launched to photograph ground installations and eavesdrop on electronic signals from the Soviet Union and the Middle East from extremely high altitudes, according to Globalsecurity.org, a website that monitors the United States military.

Brown and Root's role at Incirlik began on October 1, 1988 when the company won its first contract to run support services at the base in collaboration with Vinnell corporation of Virginia. The contracts also included providing services at two more minor military sites in Turkey: Ankara and Izmir.

The company does not advertise its presence, trying to maintain as low a profile in Turkey as possible. Vinenell Brown and Root (VBR) moved out of its multi-storied offices in downtown Adana onto the base itself after gunmen from a militant underground Marxist group killed two of their employees in early 1991. Bobbie Eugene Mozelle was killed at Incirlik while director John Gandy, a former U.S. Air Force officer, was shot to death by gunmen who boldly walked into company offices in Istanbul after overpowering several employees.

Local employees travel to work at the main gate at Incirlik by shuttle bus or "dolmus", a popular Turkish private bus service that ferries people from the center of Adana down the E5 highway. All visitors are greeted by armed Turkish sentries who do a casual check of identification cards before waving the vans through.

Before one gets to the base visitors must pass a mile long commercial strip housing restaurants, gunshops, carpet sellers, tailors and bars offering goods ranging from Mexican burritos to pirate copies of the latest James Bond movies on DVD to homesick Americans. Local women may often be seen leaving the premises of the Cheers bar or the Happy House restaurant on the arm of a soldier to make a quick ride back to a cheap hotel on Innonu Caddesi in Adana before curfew closes the main base gate at 11pm.

But for the local people in Adana the prize is getting into the Incirlik itself to work at the base exchange, bowling alley, mini-mart, fast food restaurants such as Burger King, and Taco Bell, clubs, the golf course, library, movie theater or post office.

These jobs are so sought after that they have invited petty graft, according to former VBR employee Mehmet Aziz (not his real name.) In the privacy of his home in Adana, he sipped his tea, served Turkish style without milk in a glass thimble with a couple of cubes of sugar, recalling the 20 years he worked on the base as a driver before he retired last year.

"Everybody in Adana wants jobs at the American base because they pay so well. Starting salaries for a driver are $500 a month, twice as much as you can get from other companies. Both the Americans and Turkish people working at VBR know this and they make good money charging people to get hired. Today people pay as much as $5000 to get a job on the base," he told Corpwatch.

Another reason for the demand for jobs on the base is the ability to buy US goods at Stateside prices and then smuggle them out to the Amerikan Pazari (American Bazaar) in central Adana where perfumes and jeans can fetch two to three times the original price.

Company officials do not deny that there may have been incidents of corruption in the past.

"I'm not saying it was impossible that people did or did not buy jobs in the past, but I can tell you the way it is today," said Site Manager Alex Daniels "Today our processes are that we gather most of our applicants through the Adana Labor Exchange, that's a government agency. If you have a requirement, let's say a carpenter for example, we would go to that government agency and say, we would like applicants for a carpenter position. They would provide us with ten to twenty applicants, and then we would interview those folks."

"The closest we come to nepotism is I'm sure some of our workers recommended family members as references on applications and those people are considered, you know, just like any other company would consider an application from somebody that's working for them," he added.

Despite the demand for jobs VBR employees have repeatedly expressed disatisfaction with the company. For example the base has been a target for three major union strikes since VBR took over. The first strike began in August 1990 when Harbis (War Workers Union) asked for more job security and pay raises proportional to the inflation. The strike was postponed when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The second month-long strike in July 1998 was ended when the company threatened the workers. Izzet Cetin, head of Harbis at the time, said: "We strongly criticize the employer who threatened and broke the strike by telling that the Turkish American relations would be destroyed."

The latest strike occurred in December 2002 but it too was called off. "We asked for pay reviews (to keep up with the galloping inflation in Turkey) every three months in our collective labor agreement with the airforce but they only agreed to a review every six months so after consulting with my head office I personally refused to sign the new agreement" according to Orhan Sener, current president of Harbis. Sener is a 20 year veteran on the base starting at the bottom as a freight handler.

Daniels says he believes the workers got the upper hand in the arbitration that followed the strikes. "I think it had to do primarily with - how can I say this - the home field advantage, the union being Turkish and the people that are negotiating are the US government for all practical purposes and Uncle Sam has the [money] pot."

VBR has also been criticized in the past. Kenan Durukan, president of Harbis in 1989, charged the company with carelessness toward the health of Turkish employees, who were suffering from respiratory diseases and eye and ear disorders from working in the company cold storage in Izmir, where temperature was kept at 30 degrees below zero Celsius.



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Pratap Chatterjee is an investigative journalist based in Berkeley, California. He traveled to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in January 2002 and to Incirlik, Turkey, in January 2003 to research this article. Sasha Lilley is a freelance journalist.