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Pentagon Attacks Labor Trafficking by US Contractors

Posted by David Phinney on April 24th, 2006

It has been long in coming. The Pentagon is now demanding that contractors fight labor trafficking and lousy working conditions in Iraq endured by tens of thousands of low-paid south Asians working under US-funded contracts in Iraq.

In an April 19 memorandum to all Pentagon contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Joint Contracting Command demands that the widespread practice of taking away workers passports come to end. Contractors engaging in the practice, states the memo, must immediately "cease and deist."

"All passports will be returned to employees by 1 May 06. This requirement will be flowed down to each of your subcontractors performing work in this theater."

Contractors and subcontractors routinely hold workers passports -- in direct violation of US labor trafficking laws -- to prevent them from changing employers or leave wartorn Iraq.

As many as 35,000 low-paid workers are employed under Halliburton's sweeping, multibillion logistics contract serving the US military. Many of these workers are brought to Iraq by subcontractors from neighboring Arab countries -- countries that have been frequently cited by the US State Department for the exploitation of foreign workers.

A new April 4 contracting directive (I know the PDF is upside down!) also officially confirms the dirty little secret that reporters, military people and contractors have been complaining about ever since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: Employers routinely have been exploiting many of the tens of thousands of south Asian workers working under US contracts.

The directive notes that inspections of Defense contractors in Iraq has revealed deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees that indebt workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures.

These conditions, endured by south Asian workers sometimes making only dollars a day, are all chronicled in my October story, Blood, Sweat & Tears: Asia's Poor Build U.S. Bases in Iraq.

One contractor that has been accused of coercing employees to work in Iraq against their will is now the prime contractor tasked with building new $592-million US embassy project in Baghdad.

The April military directive announces that contractors will be required to take part in new education and awareness programs, policy enforcement and inspections by Joint Contracting Command's Inspector General in the coming months for compliance.