DOD failed to stop exploitation

Documents describe human trafficking violations by DOD contractors in Iraq

Passage to India

In response to continued violations of the Defense Department’s trafficking-in-persons policies in Iraq contracts, the Central Command issued the latest in a series of orders in February.
The document alludes to “illegal recruiting activities and excessive recruiting fees on the Indian subcontinent” and referred that matter to the State Department’s inspector general for investigation.

— Sebastian Sprenger

With private security firm Blackwater USA under fire for its role in a recent shooting incident in Baghdad, new details are emerging about another problem involving contractors in Iraq: the working and living conditions of international laborers employed on U.S. government projects.

According to internal Defense Department documents, contractors working for the military in Iraq exploited international laborers in 2006, despite updated DOD regulations prohibiting such practices.
Early this year, Air Force Maj. Gen. Daryl Scott, who oversees all contracting activities for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote to senior DOD leaders that problems involving contractors’ treatment of international workers, which the military found in 2006, were ongoing.

Officials at the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan, which Scott leads, found evidence in March 2006 that contractors and subcontractors working for the U.S. government had confiscated laborers’ passports, used deceptive hiring practices, funneled workers into Iraq by circumventing local immigration procedures and housed workers in substandard conditions.

Many of those practices fall into an area legal scholars call trafficking in persons.

Officials at Multi-National Force-Iraq did not respond to requests for comments.

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) held a recent hearing on the State Department’s use of third-country workers to construct the embassy in Iraq. Tierney said there are serious allegations of abuses by contractor First Kuwaiti that included many of the same issues DOD is facing.

These “troubling allegations have come to the subcommittee’s attention that this proposed beacon of freedom was built, quite literally, on the backs of workers from Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, India and Ghana, just to name a few,” Tierney said. “We have heard of workers living a dozen, two dozen, or even more, in a single trailer measuring 40 feet by 10 feet. And we have heard of workers unable to return home, whether because their passports were withheld or because of threats or because they faced a year’s salary penalty if they resigned.”

In April 2006, then-MNF-I Commander Army Gen. George Casey signed an order directing the return of passports to all international laborers, called third-country nationals, employed by contractors of the U.S. government. The order, stamped for official use only, also mandated contract language that would set the minimum living space at 50 square feet per worker and would bar contractors from using recruiting firms to bring workers into the country via illegal recruiting fees.

Scott, in his Feb. 15 memo, summarized the findings of a December 2006 report by the inspector general of MNF-I.

“Unfortunately, the IG found that many third-country nationals are paying excessive recruitment fees, and almost half of [them] still have not been provided the mandated 50 square feet of living space,” Scott wrote in a memo addressed to senior procurement officials in the services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In the memo, Scott asked officials in Washington to help ensure that the contract language and clauses of the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement that prohibit such practices be applied to all contracts performed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trafficking-in-persons “violations are serious offenses,” Scott wrote. “MNF-I and my command take a zero-tolerance approach to any violation. Thank you for assisting us to ensure [that] all contractors performing in Iraq and Afghanistan comply.”

Despite the issue’s severity, DOD’s senior procurement official was unaware of the memo. In an Aug. 27 FCW interview with DOD procurement chief Shay Assad, one of the intended recipients of Scott’s memo, Assad said he had never seen it. “It’s addressed to me, but I haven’t seen it,” he said after a reporter showed him the document.

In an e-mail statement relayed by a DOD spokesman a few days later, Assad said that although he had not seen the memo, members of his staff had received it and forwarded it to the military departments for action.

Scott wrote a second memo Feb. 15 that was addressed to all contractors working with his command. He raised the issues that were found during the December 2006 inspection of working conditions of contractors’ laborers.

It is not clear whether DOD officials have terminated contracts based on trafficking-in-persons policy violations. Assad said he was unaware of any cases.

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