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US Overseas Contracts Faulted in Human Trafficking

FILE - A foreign security contractor keeps watch at the site of a blast near Afghanistan's Kabul International Airport.

Ten years ago, allegations erupted that U.S. contractors and subcontractors were abusing foreign nationals hired to work in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high-risk countries. Though Congress and the White House have enacted laws to protect those workers, a new report says gaps in recruitment policy and monitoring still leave them vulnerable.

According to the Government Accountability Office, thousands of foreign nationals pay recruitment fees as high as a year's salary to work on U.S. contracts in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. The fees and related interest rates heighten the risk of their being abused and caught in a cycle of debt bondage, the GAO warns.

"The ones who are ultimately recruiting these individuals are fly-by-night operations that operate in rural areas in India," where the bulk of the investigation took place, said Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The recruiters charge "exorbitant" fees, putting individuals at risk of "debt bondage" and trafficking, Watt said. "That is why the United States is ultimately responsible as the entity that is involved in the contracting process."

The GAO investigated 11 U.S. contracts involving more than 21,000 foreign nationals in the Middle East. Despite U.S. laws stating a zero-tolerance policy toward human trafficking, the GAO found that in four contracts it investigated, there was no monitoring for the problem. In one contract, more than 1,900 workers reported paying for their jobs.

Report author Thomas Melito told VOA the agencies involved – the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development – disagree about whether recruitment fees should include passport and visa fees, airfare, lodging and medical care.

Better monitoring and clearer guidance recruitment fees are needed, Melito said.

"We were able to see that workers on two of the 11 contracts we looked at did pay for their jobs," he said. They paid anywhere from a month’s to a year’s salary, which he called "very troubling."

Melito said nine of the contracts had no data on whether recruitment fees were paid.

During the past decade, thousands of workers from countries such as India, the Philippines, Nepal and Uganda have been recruited to work in low-paying but essential jobs in support of U.S. operations in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a 2012 combined ACLU and Yale Human Rights report, many of those workers were never told they had been hired to work in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others had their passports taken away, basically forcing them to stay. They often lived in inhumane and unsanitary conditions, crowded into small rooms, with little medical care. Some paid large recruitment fees.

The GAO said that many of those conditions have improved. Most contractors now are aware of the problem and are working to end the abuses, it said.

In its 2012 report on trafficking and abuse of foreign workers, the ACLU said government agencies have never exercised their authority to fine, prosecute or debar a single contractor for trafficking or labor-related offenses.

Watt criticized the apparent lack of change.

"Our view [was] that there was a lack of preventative measures, there was a lack of oversight and there was a lack of enforcement," Watt said. "In the two years that have transpired since then and the GAO report, little has changed, it would appear."

The U.S. government relies heavily on contractors hiring thousands of foreign workers to do everything from serving food to soldiers in Iraq to building power plants in southern Afghanistan. In one defense contract, about 10,000 foreign workers were providing facilities support in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Commander Nathan Christensen told VOA the Defense Department is working to end the potential for human trafficking.

"The department is aware and has responded to the recommendations provided by the GAO in its report," the spokesman said. "We take very seriously all allegations of human trafficking and continuously work to implement our zero-tolerance policy through robust training and education efforts and continuous program enforcement and evaluation."

The State Department agrees with the GAO's recommendations and is providing training to its contracting officials to improve monitoring, spokesman Jeff Rathke said. He said the department already forbids recruitment fees.

More must be done to actually stop the practice, Melito said.

"There is no longer a need to convince people this is wrong,” Melito said, “but it costs money to monitor it, it costs time to train the contract officers, it requires vigilance to stay on top of it."

Melito added that the U.S. government deals with the prime contractor, but that does not absolve it from also looking into the activities of subcontractors.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.