By Samir Goswami
U.S. military bases overseas rely on contracted migrant labor for things like food services and laundry-a system that has long imperiled the rights of foreign workers serving the very missions that claim to promote freedom. Though President Obama this year pledged to crack down on the practice, last week Congress decided that companies providing forced labor for government contracts should not be held criminally liable for exploitation.
Photo by Abishek Sarda
For a poor adult in the Global South, the offer of a lucrative job-even far from home-is almost always welcome news. In countries where the prevailing wage is less than $2 a day, the promise of employment is enough to create hope that a job overseas, no matter what the work entails, will be an opportunity to earn and send money back to the family. A wage of $1,000 per month, although below the poverty line for U.S. workers, is a dream-and one worth taking risks for.
Recruiters, backed by sub-contractors that provide labor for services to U.S. government missions abroad, manufacture such dreams to lure in workers. They deliberately target impoverished foreign nationals, who often have to take on more debt to pay illegal recruiting fees just to get the job. Many of these workers are seduced by promises of lucrative careers in construction, retail, and hospitality in the Middle East only to end up on U.S. military bases working for less than one-fourth of the promised wages and in untenable working conditions.
Instead, last week Congress decided that companies providing forced and trafficked labor for government contracts should not be held criminally liable for the exploitation of their workers.
Upon learning that such slavery may exist on its military bases abroad, one would assume that Congress would do all in its power to eradicate such exploitation. Instead, last week Congress decided that companies providing forced and trafficked labor for government contracts should not be held criminally liable for the exploitation of their workers.
Tucked away in the National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. Congress passed measures it claims will address the slavery present in its own supply chains. Yet, just before passage of the law, Senators chose to remove provisions that criminalize those who profit most from such forced labor.
This past October at the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama gave a much-celebrated speech to a global audience to take credit for his administration's leadership in fighting human trafficking. He invoked the Emancipation Proclamation, and specifically singled out the plight of base workers and the nation's commitment to eradicating slavery by focusing on its own operations and supply chains:
"Now, finally, as one of the largest purchasers of goods and services in the world, the United States government will lead by example. We've already taken steps to make sure our contractors do not engage in forced labor. And today we're going to go further. I've signed a new executive order that raises the bar."
Government contracts create supply chains that in turn create jobs-opportunities that can lift people out of poverty. But in many cases these supply chains become opportunities to exploit workers. Heeding their own calls, the re-elected Obama administration and Congress could have acted upon the oft-talked about, but rarely implemented, measures to eliminate labor trafficking that are rhetorically championed by both parties. Instead, they chose to continue the rhetoric, while traffickers continue their exploitation.
Even to skeptics the hypocrisy is stunning: The U.S. Government, backed by massive military budgets asserts the lofty goals of promoting democracy, freedom, human rights, and civilian security overseas while tolerating and funding human trafficking on the very bases that are supposed to promote these ideals.
In order to live up to the principles codified in the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. government needs to demonstrate the political and operational will to conduct the necessary, complicated-but doable-due diligence and introspection required to ensure that there is no slave labor in its supply chains. This starts by fully holding those accountable who profit from slavery. Time and time again, it has shirked this responsibility, and turned a blind eye to the exploitation that thrives in the market it created.
On U.S. bases, 70,000 Third Party Nationals
Months before, these workers had been promised lucrative jobs by unscrupulous labor brokers who came to their villages in India and promised them high-earning work in the Libyan oil fields.
I witnessed the fruits of such exploitation many years ago, when my father was stationed at the Indian Embassy in Libya. Scores of Indian workers would end up seeking refuge from "employers" at the Embassy in Tripoli, waiting to be repatriated back home. Months before, these workers had been promised lucrative jobs by unscrupulous labor brokers who came to their villages in India and promised them high-earning work in the Libyan oil fields. Instead, they were forced to work in brutal conditions with little pay and no mechanism for grievance from Muammar Gaddafi's government.
Twenty-five years later, international conventions and U.S. laws have progressed remarkably well in response to the issues of cross-border human trafficking. However, for quite some time now media reports and the tireless work of advocates have revealed that victims of human trafficking and related exploitation are providing labor and services to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A June 2011 article in The New Yorker, "Invisible Army: For Foreign Workers on U.S. Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, War can be Hell," exposed what little recourse abused foreign workers whose rights are violated have. "A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law," Sarah Stillman reported.
Billed as a cheaper, efficient alternative for basic services on U.S. missions overseas, the system has created and fostered unchecked incentives for nefarious third-party contractors to squeeze profits through illegal recruiting practices.
This article and a subsequent report by Yale University details institutionalized patterns of abuse affecting many of the 70,000 Third Country Nationals (TCNs) who are working in U.S. taxpayer-funded missions. Billed as a cheaper, efficient alternative for basic services on U.S. missions overseas, the system has created and fostered unchecked incentives for nefarious third-party contractors to squeeze profits through illegal recruiting practices.
According to the Yale report, "Many brokers target vulnerable workers in countries like Nepal, India, the Philippines, and Uganda, charge them illegal recruiting fees ... and often deceive them about the nature and conditions of the work and the wages they will receive." Many workers have to take on loans at high interest rates to pay the recruiters the illegal fees. Having received a lesser wage than they were promised, they are unable to repay the loans, further increasing their vulnerability and limiting their options.
Once on base, conditions can be extremely dangerous. External war-zone threats are exacerbated by intolerable living conditions. "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," the report states.
A human supply chain
Sam McMahon runs his own compliance consulting firm and works directly with such victims in India, recording their stories and documenting the deceptive tactics employed by recruiters. Along with the International Justice Mission he has been pressing the White House and Congress to create mechanisms that ensure that all workers in a U.S. government supply chain are treated fairly with respect to their human rights, and that they have access to effective grievance procedures if they are harmed. According to Sam, the federal government awards a contract to provide labor and services (laundry, food services, janitorial, etc.) for its missions to a U.S. firm. This contract includes reimbursements for all costs, and includes a profit for the firm. Upon award, the U.S. contractor then sub-contracts with various other companies to recruit workers to source the required labor. Though it is the agents of these subcontractors who practice the deceptive recruitment of workers, the questionable living and working conditions occur on U.S. bases where worker rights are the responsibility of the employer under local labor laws. The system thus creates a few different-but quantifiable-layers between the U.S. government and the abused worker.
Laws already exist that should, to a large extent, prevent such exploitation
Laws already exist that should, to a large extent, prevent such exploitation: U.S. FRAGO 06-188 is a Pentagon-issued directive ensuring that the U.S. Department of Defense eradicates human trafficking in labor recruiting practices, and U.S. FAR Subpar 22.15 prohibits federal procurement officials from purchasing goods made with child labor. In addition, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act prohibits various forms of human trafficking and creates resources for its elimination.
President Obama's new Executive Order, "Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts," and the new related law both prohibit the use of fraudulent recruitment practices to supply workers for government contracts, address specific tactics employed by recruiters, and create increased penalties for violations.
They do not, however, hold criminally liable the contractors that profit from such exploitation. In fact, such criminal provisions, once contained in the legislation, were removed just before final passage.
with all the laws already on the books-why does slavery still exist on U.S. military bases in such large numbers and in such plain sight?
Since the tactics utilized by abusive contractors are complicated, our legislative framework has to constantly adapt to keep up. However, by now legislative changes should merely be additive to a process that is already preventing exploitation in a supply chain. That is, with all the laws already on the books-why does slavery still exist on U.S. military bases in such large numbers and in such plain sight? The U.S. Government has simply not put enough resources or political might into enforcing current provisions: Abuses thrive because contractors are not being held accountable for violating existing laws. As the continued abuse of Third Country Nationals on U.S. Military bases indicates, just the passing of laws and executive orders does not translate into the political will that these workers desperately need to remedy the harms they continue to experience.
Reducing the number of U.S. military personnel needed to provide this labor in war zones reduces the number of U.S. citizens who may return in body bags.
Outsourcing basic services for U.S. military operations overseas benefits the U.S. government in one key way: Reducing the number of U.S. military personnel needed to provide this labor in war zones reduces the number of U.S. citizens who may return in body bags. The resulting demand for foreign workers benefits U.S. contractors and their subcontractors, who squeeze margins and illegally charge workers to bring in hefty, unaccountable profits.
A U.S. base overseas requires hundreds and thousands of civilian staff and personnel to support its operations. It exists to support activities that allegedly promote freedom. Operationally, the base can be a mechanism to provide good jobs that lift people in developing countries out of poverty; instead it becomes an opportunity for others to enslave them.
I believe that many Indian workers, like the ones I met those years ago in Libya, would come work in war zones to take the housekeeping, construction, and food service jobs-they want to work and would appreciate the chance. They should be given these opportunities, but with full respect to their human dignity.
Ironically, these home states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are facing labor shortages.
More can also be done to create opportunities for workers in their home countries, which will reduce their vulnerability. I recently visited the states in southern India where many such workers are recruited from. Ironically, these home states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are facing labor shortages. And just as the U.S. government should ensure the human rights of all the workers in its supply chains, the Indian government can do more to connect vulnerable under- and unemployed workers to local jobs, reducing their need to uproot themselves from their communities in a risky pursuit of work in a war zone.
The speech, the Executive Order, and the law passed last week by Congress all reflect a continuation of the United States' continued commitment to eradicate all forms of slavery. In the coming months rules will be issued to implement this latest Executive Order and new law, and depending on the political climate in Washington, D.C., resources might be allocated to investigate related criminal enterprises and provide restitution to workers.
Will the strong words expressed by the White House and members of Congress condemning these foul labor practices translate into a government that will finally hold itself accountable for the slavery that exists within the compounds of military bases advertising freedom?
Unfortunately, the inadequate implementation of existing policies, and not holding those who profit from slavery criminally liable, warrants a cynical reception of the President's words and Congress' actions.
Samir Goswami, a Washington, D.C.-based writer from India, wrote this article for Human Goods. Samir spent the last 15 years working towards policy reform for the issues of human rights, homelessness and housing, workforce development, violence against women and sex trafficking, specifically working with survivors to have a direct say in their governance. He is the Board President of Economic Enterprises for Humanitarian Development where he focuses on corporate social responsibility and accountability. His work has been recognized by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Chicago Foundation for Women, which honored him with the 2010 Impact Award. He is still on a quest for authentic advocacy.
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