Attrition: Gurkhas Want to Renegotiate

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September 20, 2006: For over two centuries, the British army has relied heavily on foreign troops to maintain its strength. Currently, there are some 6,700 foreigners serving in the British army, about ten percent of the force. What is different today is that most (3,700) of the foreigners are not in separate units (as the Nepalese Gurkhas are), but serve side-by-side with British citizens, in the same units. The foreign troops come from 57 nations, with the largest contingent (after the Gurkhas) being 2,000 men from Fiji. Like the Gurkhas, the Fijians are simply fond of the military life, and good at it. Other major contributors of troops are; Jamaica (975), South Africa (720), Zimbabwe (565), St Vincent (280), St Lucia (225), Australia (75). Note that all of these are former colonies, and still possess many English speakers, and people familiar with British customs. Moreover, those who make the army a career, can retire to their home country and, in most cases, live quite well because of lower living costs back home. This is particularly the case with the Gurkhas. Although these troops always received lower pensions (less than ten percent of what British vets get), the cost-of-living was so low in Nepal, that the Gurkha veterans lived quite well. Moreover, Gurkhas could retire after fifteen years, while British soldiers had to serve 22 years to qualify for a pension. Currently, over fifty Nepalese compete for each available new position available in British army Gurkha battalions.
Centuries ago, when foreign troops were first used, they were usually hired, as units, from the foreign nation that supplied them. The Gurkhas first entered British service in 1815, and were paid wages similar to other troops in the region. Then, as now, this was less than what European troops made. Retired Gurkhas began pressing for pension parity nearly two decades ago, and they probably will get it. For several decades, Gurkha troops have received extra cost-of-living pay, depending on where they were serving, that gave them pay comparable to local civilian wages. This Gurkhas in Britain ended up earning about the same as their British counterparts. But the pensions are still based on living costs in Nepal. But not for long.
Britain has long recruited foreigners into its army and navy because there has always been a shortage of British citizens willing to serve. Currently, the British army is short about 1.5 percent of its authorized strength.

 


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