Whistleblowers, Foreign Workers Beset by Federal Subcontractor Human Rights Woes
June 14, 2011 - Comments Off
With the US government’s continued reliance on defense contractors to provide services to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign employees have become an integral part of subcontractors’ workforce; but their experiences have been blighted by unfair labor practices and human rights violations, possibly to include human trafficking. In a recent New Yorker article, “Invisible Army,” Sarah Stillman reveals the plight of tens of thousands of foreign workers lured to US military bases by defense subcontractors on false promises of good salaries in major global cities. In search of a better life, men and women from third-world and developing nations leave their loved ones and the familiarity of home to take jobs as construction workers, barbers, janitors and fast food servers. More often than not, these workers find themselves underpaid, overworked and victims of physical and sexual abuse. To worsen matters, numerous federal subcontractors operating without oversight or supervision of any government authority require interested job applicants to pay fees, sometimes in excess of $1,000, to secure a position. The prospect of earning $4,000 monthly encourages these workers to take exorbitant loans they are unable to pay off when subcontractors reveal their actual salaries of $250 to $800 per month.
Instead of receiving praise and support for advocating fairness, whistleblowers who report or complain about the exploitation of foreign and migrant workers risk losing their jobs. Mike Land, an American who supervised ten Indian and Filipino employees of KBR-subcontractor Prime Projects International, was sharply reprimanded by his former employer, KBR, for regularly speaking out against the deplorable living conditions the workers faced each day. The men slept in shipping containers, had little to no access to medical care and coordinated dumpster raids for leftover and disposed food to quell hunger pangs. Sadly, many of estimated 70,000 foreign workers employed on U.S. bases in the Middle East are subjected to similar conditions.
To prevent and punish abuses of civilians and foreign workers, human rights groups have urged Congress to reconsider proposed legislation that would bring non-defense contractors under the purview of American criminal laws. Introduced in 2010 by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) allow contractors, subcontractors and employees accused of crimes abroad to be prosecuted under U.S. criminal laws if the offense occurs in a place under federal jurisdiction or while the contractor or employee is operating under a Department of Defense contracts. If passed, the bill calls for the Attorney General, Secretary of State and Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to establish an investigative division – or “Investigative Units for Contractor and Employee Oversight” – solely devoted to investigating allegations of criminal offenses enumerated in CEJA. Along with the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, CEJA has the potential to considerably reduce the legal grey area in handling federal contractors abroad.