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Modern-Day Slavery: Abuse of Low-Wage Workers by US Contractors Goes Unchecked

Screenshot from the ACLU's report on TCNs

A report on the tens of thousands of primarily poor or working class people from developing countries, who are hired through US government contracts to work for United States military or diplomatic missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The report calls attention to a system of slave labor that is enabled by a US government that refuses to allow corporations accountable for massive violations of human rights.

Put together in cooperation with the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic of Yale Law School, the report finds US government contractors in need of workers for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan currently “rely upon some 70,000” third country nationals (“TCN”). They are hired by “local recruiting agents, who target vulnerable workers—many of whom earn less than $1 per day—in countries like Nepal, India, the Philippines and Uganda.” These agents are likely to have ties to “organized crime.”

Those hired are typically deceived and not told where they will be working or what work they will be asked to perform. Workers may be recruited under the “false pretense of job openings at luxury hotels in Dubai or Amman.” The recruiting agents often charge “recruiting fees” of $2000-$5000, which require TCNs to “borrow funds from loan sharks, who often resort to violence and intimidation to recover their investments from TCNs or their families.”

These people, who are considered to be the “army behind the army,” inevitably find out they are only going to receive $150-275 a month, not $1000. Some find there are no jobs waiting for them at all when they reach their destination in Iraq or Afghanistan. As the report describes:

In such situations, some contractors hold TCNs in crowded, dirty warehouses for weeks or even months on end, forbidding them from returning home while at the same time refusing to pay them or let them seek alternative means of employment. All the while, TCNs accrue monthly interest on their debts at rates that can soar as high as 50% per year.

TCNs often choose to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan because they know they have to find a job or else they will not be able to pay their loans and “protect their families from retribution.” They do not normally report abuses or seek protection because they are vulnerable and fear dismissal. This gives government contractors the freedom to abuse TCNs with impunity, subject them to “twelve- and fourteen-hour workdays without overtime pay or “seven-day work weeks with no vacation time for several years.” It makes it permissible to offer “salaries as low as $150 per month, squalid living conditions, inedible food” and “subject them to confinement, physical and verbal abuse and exposure to dangerous and deadly working conditions without compensation or insurance.”

In the same way that corporations are largely immune from prosecution if found to have committed torture, US government contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan largely have no reason to fear being held accountable for abusing and violating the human rights of low-wage workers:

Congress has sought to establish mechanisms to hold contractors accountable for trafficking violations. Among other measures, it has extended military and criminal jurisdiction to include contractors who accompany the Armed Forces overseas, and empowered Government officials to penalize contractors for their misconduct through a variety of criminal and non-criminal sanctions. Nevertheless, Government agencies have yet to enforce these measures in any meaningful way; although they possess ample authority to do so, they have yet to fine or prosecute a single contractor for trafficking- or labor-related offenses. Despite having the ability to suspend and terminate contracts with both prime and subcontractors, Government agencies have never exercised this authority. As a result, contractors continue to traffic and abuse TCNs with impunity.

The report highlights the discovery of a Bosnian “sex trafficking ring” before 2000. Employees of Virginia-based DynCorp International Inc. were found to be purchasing girls as young as twelve “for use as sex slaves.” (This was the subject of the recently released film The Whistleblower.)

Despite substantial evidence of criminal wrongdoing, none of the men involved in the sex ring faced prosecution; the sole punishment for their actions was termination from DynCorp, and several escaped even that. Meanwhile, even after its attempts to conceal the incident became public, DynCorp continued to secure Government contracts, including a $250 million contract to “re-establish police, justice, and prison functions in post-conflict Iraq.” The Bosnian incident revealed a critical loophole in U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking.

In 2000, the US enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), which granted departments or agencies the authorization to terminate contracts without penalty if contractors were engaged in forced labor or the trafficking of persons. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) was also passed in the same year and, after an amendment in 2004, made it possible for the Defense Department (DoD) to exercise jurisdiction over any crimes committed by contractors (however, it did not mandate oversight and enforcement). In 2005, Congress amended the TVPA to “persons employed by or accompanying the US government outside of the United States.” And Congress amended the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in 2006 to extend military jurisdiction to include civilian contractors (but the DoD has made little use of this amendment). Yet, the report makes clear, “The US government has yet to prosecute a single contractor for trafficking or labor abuse under the MEJA, the UCMJ, or the TVPA and its expansions.

Two key examples are mentioned in the report to show how the US government is averse to prosecution. One was a “highly publicized incident involving 1,000 Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Indian TCNs—whom Najlaa International confined to a windowless warehouse without money or work for three months.” The Justice Department determined in 2009 there had not been any human trafficking violations because they could have left the worksite where they were located if they had wanted. This was intentionally ignorant of the reality that, as the report shows, “TCNs rarely enjoy such freedom: as explained in detail above, contractors employ a range of tactics—including confiscating TCNs’ passports, restricting their movement, withholding their pay, and charging them “termination fees”—to prevent TCNs from leaving the worksites.”

The other example is a case where the Inspector General for DoD “received information concerning abuses on the part of Amina Enterprise Group, a U.S. Government contractor serving under multiple contracts in Afghanistan. These abuses included bribing engineers with prostitutes in order to garner contracts, as well as recruiting women to work at a beauty salon under false pretenses and inhumane conditions. For instance, Amina allegedly charged the women $700 each for their flight into the country, even though the latter arrived via a military flight—ostensibly free for the company. Reports indicate that Amina also charged each of the women their entire salary ($150 per month) to maintain a chair at the salon, leaving the women with only the tips they made.” An International Contract Corruption Task Force ultimately announced they had “exhausted all logical leads” and “no actionable criminal activity ha[d] been discovered.”

A number of women who have traveled to Iraq or Afghanistan have been subjected to sexual exploitation. Ugandan women have traveled to Baghdad for jobs and been forced into prostitution. Also, harrowing is the reality that many women are likely to experience gender-based violence:

…In 2008, female cooks and cleaners at the British embassy in Baghdad alleged sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of their KBR supervisors. One woman reported that her KBR manager “threw many $100 notes on the desk and said, ‘take whatever you want and stay overnight and I will pay you double [your daily pay].’”

More recently, New Yorker reporter Sarah Stillman described the harrowing experience of Lydia, a TCN from Fiji: “A supervisor had ‘had his way with’ Lydia . . . nonconsensual sex had become a regular feature of Lydia’s life . . . the man would taunt Lydia, calling her a ‘fucking bitch’ and describing the various acts he would like to see her perform.” On Lydia’s behalf, Stillman dialed the U.S. Army’s emergency sexual-assault hotline several times over several days, but never received an answer.

According to an Army national guardsman, the abuse of female TCNs by their supervisors is common: “I am . . . on my second tour of Iraq. . . .I have seen blatant corruption among the [private] contractors [in Iraq] and even cases of outright human trafficking and forced prostitution among female third country nationals.”…

What is apparent from the report is workers are being subjected to abuse, extortion and trafficking and sometimes forced into prostitution and often coerced into forced labor where they work in dangerous conditions and wind up more poor than they were before traveling to make money for their families. The workers are despicably underpaid but how underpaid is kept secret by the US government. US officials like Attorney General Eric Holder like to talk about the US having a “zero-tolerance policy” toward these practices by US contractors but they do not enforce laws to deter contractors from subjecting workers to abuse and even violence. Compensation is not made available to victims of abuse and violence who are treated as nobodies. The result is a system of “modern-day slavery” is enabled by America’s empire-building in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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