Reformers Aim To Improve Conditions for Abused Workers at America’s Imperial Outposts

Empire can be messy.One of the easiest ways for a politician to get
good press is to go in front of a camera and mumble something about
“human trafficking” and “modern slavery.” Very often, the planned
initiative or legislation targets both abused immigrants forced to
work and live in horrendous conditions, as well as people voluntary
engaged in some business, such as the sex trade, that is officially
making it difficult to gauge the extent of the real problem
. So
it’s interesting to read a report that credibly documents the
defrauding, coercion and mistreatment of thousands of laborers by
contractors providing services to United States government military
and diplomatic outposts around the world. And now there’s even
legislation to limit the abuses.

The ACLU and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights
Clinic at Yale Law School compiled
Victims of Complacency: The Ongoing Trafficking and Abuse of Third
Country Nationals by U.S. Government Contractors
(PDF), in
which they found:

U.S. Government contractors rely upon some 70,000 TCNs to
support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. To recruit TCNs,
contractors use 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. Many of these agents
charge prospective TCNs recruiting fees of between $2,000-5,000,
and deceive TCNs about the location or conditions of the work they
will perform as well as the wages and benefits they will receive.
Agents may promise salaries of $1,000 or more per month, and even
recruit workers under the false pretense of job openings at luxury
hotels in Dubai or Amman. The exorbitant fees they charge require
many TCNs to borrow funds from loan sharks, who often resort to
violence and intimidation to recover their investments from TCNs or
their families.

In some cases, TCNs do not become aware that they are destined
for Iraq or Afghanistan until after they reach transit points in
Dubai or Kuwait City, or else upon arrival at the airport in
Baghdad or Kandahar. Many TCNs arrive to learn that they will earn
as little as $150-275 a month, not the promised $1,000, while
others discover that no jobs await them at all. 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.

The report cites such incidents as a 2008 protest by Asian
workers who had paid more than $2,000 to secure jobs that
turned out to be rather lousier than advertised

About 1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti subcontractor
to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as three months
in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or

Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor to KBR,
the Texas firm formerly known as Halliburton, hired the men, who
are from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, they
protested outside their compound over living conditions.

“It’s really dirty,” a Sri Lankan man told McClatchy Newspapers,
speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still wants to
work for Najlaa. “For all of us, there are about 12 toilets and
about 10 bathrooms. The food — it’s three half-liter (1-pint)
bottles of water a day. Bread, cheese and jam for breakfast. Lunch
is a small piece of meat, potato and rice. Dinner is rice and dal,
but it’s not dal,” he said, referring to the lentil dish.

Writing just last year for the New Yorker, Sarah
said of such workers

Many of them recount having been robbed of wages, injured
without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in
conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor
bosses. Previously unreleased contractor memos, hundreds of
interviews, and government documents I obtained during a yearlong
investigation confirm many of these claims and reveal other grounds
for concern.

So the ACLU/Yale report compiles and  formalizes stories
that had been trickling out and suggests remedies that might,
hopefully, improve the lot of people working in lousy circumstances
on behalf of the U.S. government. In short form, the
recommendations are:

1. Prohibit Trafficking, Deceptive Recruiting, Forced Labor and
Other Abuses
2. Hold Prime Contractors Responsible for the Recruitment, Hiring,
and Treatment
of TCNs
3. Encourage Direct Hire of TCNs by primary contractors
4. Ensure Passport Access
5. Prohibit Exploitative Worker Contracts
6. Require Fair Pay and Time Off
7. Mandate Safe and Habitable Living Conditions
8. Require Medical Care and Insurance under Defense Base Act
9. Facilitate Regular Contact with Home and Family
10. Safeguard the Right of Return

These points all seem perfectly reasonable conditions for
contracts with government agencies, with “fair pay” defined as
nothing more earth-shattering than “monthly wages equivalent to the
amounts specified in their employment contracts.” Yes, banning
coerced work, paying people what they’ve been contractually
promised and eventually returning them home sounds like a good
baseline for treatment of people providing services to the U.S.

The End
Trafficking in Government Contracting Act of 2012
, now under
consideration in Congress, would essentially enact what the report
recommends. It has a list of sponsors from both sides of the aisle,
and appears to be one of those rare situations when the word
“bipartisan” shouldn’t send you looking for someplace to hide.

Of course, one wonders if engaging in far-flung imperial
projects spanning the planet doesn’t inherently create situations
in which abuse and fraud become not just likely, but inevitable