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Your Tax Dollars at Work? U.S. Military Contractors and Human Trafficking in War Zones

Steven M. Watt,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
Valerie Brender,
Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project
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July 21, 2011

Today, we filed a lawsuit to enforce an earlier Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request aimed at tackling the underreported problem of trafficking and abusive treatment of foreign workers on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 70,000 low-wage workers, commonly known as third country nationals or “TCNs,” work for U.S. military contractors to provide the U.S armed forces with essential services on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, including construction, cooking and cleaning. As recent media reports indicate, many of these workers often end up on these military bases through a convoluted system of sub-contracting rife with corruption, debt bondage, coercion and other abuse.

Our FOIA lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, seeks documents detailing the monitoring and enforcement of trafficking and labor laws and policies on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent article in The New Yorker paints a typical picture of the corrupt military sub-contracting system in operation. The article tells the story of a group of Fijian women TCNs, one handful of the tens of thousands of individuals who work to support the American military in war zones around the world. Hired by a local recruitment agency in their home country as beauticians in 2007, the women were promised lucrative employment in luxury hotels in Dubai. However, upon their arrival there, the women were informed that they were actually bound for a U.S. military base in Iraq. Some of the women had taken out loans to cover onerous recruiting fees; others were threatened with exorbitant termination fees if they returned to Fiji. Because of these costs, they felt compelled to travel to Iraq despite the danger to their lives. Once in Iraq, the women’s contracts were reduced to a fraction of what they had been initially promised in Fiji. And, before being paid at all, the women were all required to sign contracts stating that they would work twelve hours a day, seven days a week with overtime hours that they were unable to turn down.

These corrupt recruiting tactics were not supposed to happen. In fact, back in 2006, in direct response to mounting evidence of trafficking and other abuses of foreign workers by U.S. military contractors, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General George Casey, issued rules for all military contractors aimed at stopping trafficking and abuse. These rules required that all foreign workers retain their passports, basic standards of living for foreign workers and that all unlicensed recruiting firms be banned from the contracting process.

Unfortunately, since the rules were established, it is difficult to determine whether they have been successful in ending illegal trafficking and abuse. And, recent media articles and government reports suggest the opposite; that they have done little to prevent trafficking and other abuses. Other instances of trafficking and abuse of foreign workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as those of the Fijian women, continue to be exposed, revealing that the rules are neither being followed by contactors nor enforced by the government.

We hope that our lawsuit will promote greater transparency about the sub-contracting process with a view to effectively stemming further trafficking and abuses of workers on American military bases. Stay tuned for information about what we uncover.

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