A report released late last month by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lowenstein Clinic at Yale Law School documents ongoing abuse and trafficking of workers hired by U.S. Government contractors to support the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilian workforce comes mostly from developing countries and performs low-wage services like construction, transportation, security, and food services.
Tens of thousands of Third Country Nationals (TCNs) are hired yearly through contractors to support the military and are subject to a variety of abuses, including illegal recruitment, trafficking, and forced labor. Vulnerable workers, many of whom make less than $1 per day, are targeted by recruiting agents who promise exorbitant salaries and often lie about the location and type of work the recruits will preform. Then, when the workers arrive in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are subjected to appalling work and living conditions, including twelve- and fourteen-hour work days, seven-day work weeks, no vacation, low salaries, squalid living conditions, confinement, and inedible food.
Because TCNs often have to borrow money to pay recruiting fees, they comprise a uniquely vulnerable group. They remain in Iraq or Afghanistan even when abused with impunity in the hope that they will eventually be able to pay off recruiting fee debts, which are subject to interest rates as high as 50 percent per year, and protect their families from retribution. The report describes individual instances of abuse such as the following:
- Thirteen men from Nepal, promised jobs in hotels in Jordan, were instead sent to work for a government contractor in Iraq. Twelve of the men were kidnapped by insurgents and executed. The thirteenth man was prevented from going home for fifteen months.
- In 2008, 1,000 South Asian workers protested outside of Baghdad. They had been confined to a windowless warehouse without pay or work for three months.
- Another group of workers incurred debts up to $5000 for jobs that never materialized, and were forced to live in huts made out of tarp and pieces of carpet. The workers had no access to food or water.
While the United States has a zero-tolerance policy toward human trafficking, existing measures are failing to curb the entrapment and abuse of foreign workers. “Accountability exists in theory but not in practice: to date, the U.S. government has yet to fine or prosecute a single contractor for trafficking- or labor-related offenses,” the report states. The ACLU recommends making changes to prevention, investigation, and prosecution policies in order to protect workers.