Iraq Contractors on Notice About Labor Abuse
Conference Discusses "Zero Tolerance" of Forced Labor
Sam McCahon proposed a simple solution to convince US-funded contractors working in Iraq to return passports to their migrant workers. Reaching in his pocket, the candid government contract lawyer pulled out a clip of folded US dollars and held it up.
“This works,” he said, speaking at a conference on labor trafficking in Washington, DC, sponsored last week by the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group of private contractors specializing in military support services.
McCahon pointed out that when businesses in the Middle East realize that they will lose out on lucrative US contracts, they get the message--employees have rights when working for American taxpayers, no matter what their nationality or salaries are.
“There are so many companies out there and this is a competitive world,” McCahon explained to the audience of three dozen contractors, Pentagon officials and human rights experts. “If the companies don’t want to comply, they can go somewhere else.”
Returning passports to workers became a big issue for Iraq contractors last spring after a Defense Department order demanded that employers stop the widespread and “illegal” practice of holding travel and identity documents to prevent low-wage employees from leaving jobs.
Aimed at preventing the trafficking of migrant workers and forced labor in Iraq, the April 2006 contracting order also found that employers had been engaging in a number of unacceptable employment policies--including deceptive bait-and-switch hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees, and the circumvention of Iraqi immigration procedures.
The order additionally noted that workers lived in substandard living conditions, which other military inspections found to include crowded housing, poor food, inadequate health services and poor sanitation. All of these findings amounted to conditions that could indicate incidents of forced labor under US contracts in Iraq.
Tens of thousands of laborers from South Asia, Africa and elsewhere, known as “third country nationals,” work at US military camps in construction, camp maintenance, and food preparation. Subcontractors working for US companies in Iraq were among the most frequent offenders, especially the multibillion-dollar logistics contract held by Halliburton/KBR to build, maintain and service some 70 military camps in Iraq.
McCahon, vice president and general counsel with Agility Defense and Government Services since September 2005, said in an interview that he implemented strict new policies to comply with the 2006 contracting directive. One demands that all employees of Agility and its subcontractors maintain custody of their identity papers.
“There’s been a lot of worker exploitation,” said McCahon, who has worked with contractors in Iraq since the 2003 coalition liberation and subsequent occupation. “Workers can lose a lot of self-esteem if their documents are taken away and many subcontractors do that to make them feel powerless.”
A second, and perhaps more important policy, is to ensure that recruiters in host countries only be paid by the hiring company and not charge recruitment fees to workers – a practice that can cause heavy debt to the employee. McCahon estimates that 90 percent or more of the migrant workers in Iraq at one time were paying “illegal recruitment fees.
“That creates indentured servitude,” he said. “We cancelled all recruiting fees and trebled the damages,” he said. “Our subs now pay all the recruitment fees and the recruiters can’t accept payments from the workers.”
To help spread the word of “zero tolerance” on worker abuse; Agility now places anti-trafficking posters in all of its work areas in English, Hindu, and Arabic with a hotline for anonymous callers to report complaints. The posters warn against “the use of force, fraud or coercion” regarding labor. Additionally, the company holds monthly meetings with randomly selected employees to review working conditions. “We want to know if the employees are happy.”
Speaking at the July 16 IPOA conference, the commanding officer for the Defense Contract Management Agency in Iraq said he was surprised when he heard about the conditions that some workers faced under contractors in Iraq. He said he had never heard about the passport issue until the April 2006 order.
“My first though was disbelief,” said Army Col. Jake Hansen who supervised the inspections of KBR’s logistics contract. “None of us saw this coming. We were all surprised.”
Hansen said that during his inspections, he never witnessed some poor working conditions for the migrant laborers. “I wasn’t appalled by what I saw.... They were better conditions than they had back home.”
He also stressed that the low-wage labor force has provided some of the highest-quality food and camp services the military has ever had. “That’s important for retention.”
Hansen also noted that KBR has implemented strict anti-trafficking measures, which include monthly meetings with workers and training seminars.
Still, all may not be well in Iraq, according to anecdotal reports from American civilian sources that work at military camps with the low-wage labor force and who complain of poor medical care, crowded living quarters and questionable food.
Check Slogger tomorrow for accounts of recent labor abuses of TCNs working for US-funded contractors.
David Phinney is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.