Committee acts to stop contractors from enabling human trafficking

A Senate committee wants to make sure Uncle Sam doesn’t act as an inadvertent enabler for international human traffickers and pimps.

With a voice vote Wednesday, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee preliminarily approved legislation designed, as its title says, to “End Trafficking in Government Contracting.”

When contractors submit proposals for government work overseas, they don’t include provisions for trading in humans or indentured servitude. But that apparently has been the case with some private firms operating on U.S. military bases in foreign countries.

“Modern-day slavery by government contractors — unknowingly funded by American taxpayers — is unconscionable and intolerable,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), prime sponsor of the bill. “Current law prohibiting human trafficking is insufficient and ineffective, failing to prevent or punish abuses.”

In contrast to all the debate about federal employees, too little attention has been paid to more than 70,000 people, from countries such as Bangladesh, Fiji and the Philippines, who work for military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, says information provided by Blumenthal’s office.

Some of them are lured by promises of lucrative jobs, only to be paid next to nothing and forced to go heavily in debt from labor brokers. Their living conditions often are shameful and their passports are sometimes confiscated.

Blumenthal said the legislation would “stop egregious human rights abuses on U.S. military bases.” Under the bill, companies, with contracts worth $1 million or more would certify they have plans and procedures to prevent trafficking. The plans, according to Blumenthal’s Web site, should cover such things as “destroying or confiscating passports; misrepresenting wages or work location; using labor brokers who charge exorbitant recruiting fees; and activities that support the procurement of commercial sex acts.”

The committee’s action was preliminary because it did not have a quorum. The House has already passed companion legislation.

When the bill was introduced, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a cosponsor, said “American tax dollars should never be allowed to subsidize human trafficking. The exploitation of persons recruited by unscrupulous labor brokers and subcontractors who misrepresent pay, charge excessive recruiting fees, and often confiscate immigration and identity documents, cannot be tolerated in overseas contingency operations under contracts funded by American taxpayers.”

The legislation requires a federal official with “credible evidence” of trafficking or other prohibited activities to notify the agency’s inspector general. The IG then must investigate and take appropriate action, which could include stopping payments to the contractor.

Anyone found guilty of using false statements or making bogus promises to recruit or hire people outside the United States to work on a government contract could get five years in prison.

The bipartisan legislation stems from a Commission on Wartime Contracting report that said abuses in contracting “undermine the United States’ reputation abroad.”

A stain on Sam’s name is the least of the injuries.

During a trip to Iraq in April 2009, the commission found that:

●Contractors withheld pay from third-country workers until their contract term was completed, so they couldn’t quit and go home.

●One company paid Ugandan guards $700 a month, $1,000 less than the government paid the company. “This $1,000 difference exceeds even the most generous indirect contract costs,” the commission said. Unsaid: The guards still would have been exploited if they got the full $1,700.

●Many of the foreign workers were not given promised 30-day vacations.

The commission found similar conditions the next year in Afghanistan. Some workers were lured with promises of good paying work in Kuwait, only to find themselves taken to low paying jobs in Afghanistan.

“Numerous Philippine nationals arrived at Kandahar Air Field, but only two had jobs lined up,” the commission said. “Others stayed on the military base looking for work. The air field commander told the Commission that when he first arrived, ‘a couple thousand’ unauthorized third-country nationals were on base.”

Clearly that’s not a good security situation. And it’s not a decent way to treat people.

“The exploitation of people through human trafficking is completely contrary to the values of freedom and human rights that America stands for,” said committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), cosponsor of the legislation. “Our ability to encourage other countries to stop trafficking around the globe is undermined if we don’t stop it under contracts that are paid for by our own tax dollars.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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