Recently, I read a story about South Asian workers mistreated by military contractors in Iraq. They were lied to about where they were going, the terms of their contracts were violated, they weren’t paid, they had lousy working conditions, and their passports were withheld so they couldn’t leave. As a result, the US military has had to spend its time cracking down on conditions in its kitchens when it has larger fish to fry:The man told them they would not get any more food. “We bought you,”
The U.S. military said Tuesday that it had issued new orders to private contractors in Iraq to crack down on violations of human trafficking laws involving laborers … at American bases and other sites. An inspection completed in late March uncovered evidence that it was widespread practice among firms providing services to the military to take away their workers’ passports to keep them in place… Hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers, many from South Asia, are employed by contractors at U.S. bases and elsewhere in Iraq as cooks, food servers, janitors, construction workers and in other menial jobs.
Human rights groups have reported complaints by some workers that they were tricked into coming into Iraq. After they paid fees to recruiters in their home countries for jobs said to be in the Gulf, their passports were taken and they were forced to go to Iraq, the workers said. The groups have also reported complaints of withheld pay and overtime and unsuitable working and housing conditions. [Link]
This is deja vu all over again. Almost exactly the same stories first came to light 2 years ago this month when four men from Kerala came back from Iraq after working for a subcontractor for Kellogg, Brown & Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton):
While their Western managers slept in air-conditioned trailers, they were crammed into tents in 100-degree-plus temperatures. The cooks set aside some rice and curry for them but it was not enough and they had to supplement their food with whatever was left over from the soldiers’ meals — which was often nothing. They were told they could not take the filtered bottled water but instead must drink the Iraqi tap water that was poured into aluminum buckets with tablets of chlorine and chunks of ice… Ajayakumar said he threw up for weeks from the contaminated water…. [W]hen they were handed a dinner of beef curry that hadn’t been fully cooked, several dozen of them went to their manager, who worked for Gulf Catering, to complain. According to the workers, the man told them they would not get any more food. “We bought you,” he reportedly said. [Link]
The men say they were told they could not leave for six months:
They said their supervisor, who had taken their passports in Kuwait, told them they were obligated to work on the base for six months and could not leave. [Link]
The subcontractor confirmed that their passports were held, but said they were taken away for safekeeping:
Mr. Smith said the men’s accounts of being mistreated in Iraq were false. He said that no workers were held against their will and that passports had been collected after a fire on an American base destroyed some workers’ passports. [Link]
No matter who was correct two years ago, the US military’s investigation confirmed that taking away passports remains conventional behavior today and is illegal:
The U.S. military inspection found that employers were violating U.S. law by withholding passports to prevent workers from jumping to other employers, Johnson said in a statement.
“The rights to freedom of movement and quality living standards are serious issues,” he said, and the U.S. military in Iraq “takes a zero tolerance approach to any violation.” [Link]
This is the problem with incomplete privatization – you get efficiency gains not from moving from public to private per se, but rather from moving from monopoly to competition. You need transparency and enforcement of contracts, not a few large no bid contracts with endless subcontracting without responsibility.
I have a modest proposal to avoid future such problems. Marketize further. The government should set up incentives in its contract — harsh penalties for violating its terms — and then hire many Indian accountants to come to Iraq and work on a bounty system to make sure that the contract is being followed. This would save the US money, since it is currently paying for working conditions that are not provided, and lead to better working conditions to boot. Heck, if you really want to create incentives, you could say that all egregious subcontractors – whether Indian, Saudi or American – would have to take their employees place for a month. Whaddya think?
Related stories: Sri Lankan maids abused in Middle East