On March 27 the Technology, Informational Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing, "Labor Abuses, Human Trafficking, and Government Contracts: Is the Government Doing Enough to Protect Vulnerable Workers?"
This is a subject of more than passing interest to me because last year I wrote a report, published June 14, and commissioned by the Project on Government Oversight, on the exploitation and abuse of the workers of a KBR subcontractor. I subsequently testified at a Nov. 2, 2011 hearing about that report before this very subcommittee.
That hearing, by the way, left me with a lingering sense of surrealism, even after five months, if only because it was revealed that the Pentagon official who had responsibility for this subject had never been to Iraq and Afghanistan.
And sadly, as was noted back then, there has virtually never been a prosecution on this charge, even though it was a widespread practice in both Iraq and Afghanistan with contractors, or subcontractor. And there have only been a very few debarments or suspensions of contractors even though it was well known as a widespread practice.
So, you can see why this might be a subject of interest. I have posted the full transcript of last week's hearing on my blog and I encourage you to read it. But let me just highlight a few relevant points.
Because this is a continuing problem new legislation has been introduced in Congress to address it. In the House it is H.R.4259 -- End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act of 2012. In the Senate it is S.2234.
That bill would prevent trafficking abuses by requiring contractors with contracts over $1 million to implement compliance plans to prevent trafficking including destroying or confiscating passports, misrepresenting wages or work locations, or using labor brokers who charge exorbitant recruiting fees.
It improves accountability by requiring that a contractor notify the inspector general if he or she receives credible evidence that a subcontractor has engaged in prohibited conduct, requiring the inspector general to investigate such instances and requiring the inspector general to investigate all those instances, and with that require swift remedial action against the contractor.
And, it improves enforcement of anti-trafficking requirements by expanding the criminal prohibitions that prevent fraudulent labor practices typically associated with trafficking.
And if you don't think it is a continuing problem you will need to have a little talk with Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) who said at the hearing:
Despite the existing protections, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, reports have made it very clear that human trafficking practices, in connection with U.S. overseas contracts, remain a very significant problem. To put this in some context, there are over 70,000 third-country nationals who now work for contractors and subcontractors of the U.S. military, again in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.
Doubtlessly PMSC industry officials will say that the overwhelming majority of U.S. contractors and subcontractors are honorable and law-abiding and have made it a priority to ensure that abusive labor practices play no role in the work they do in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
This is, of course, true. It is also true that oversight is lacking. As Sen. Portman testified:
And the oversight is limited. The Wartime Contracting Commission, for example, reported that, quote, "Some prime contractors, although not themselves knowingly violating the prohibitions on trafficking, have not proactively used all their capacities to supervise their labor brokers or subs."
The State Department's Inspector General's Report, similar, stated that, quote, "Since contracting regulations do not specify how to monitor contractors for trafficking in persons, the IG could not conclude that trafficking in persons monitoring is effective."
The bottom line here is familiar to anyone who has watched the U.S. government grapple with contracting problems in war zones; oops, I mean "stability operations." There is a serious problem; various people, both in and outside government, point it out; the government, both legislative and executive branches begin to focus on it; more resources are devoted to fixing the problem; some improvements are genuine, others are rhetorical. Is it making a dramatic difference? No, but it is not insignificant either.
But one thing should be clear. This is not some merely some picayune issue for bureaucrats to fuss over. As Sen. Portman testified, "This is about something much more fundamental, and that's who we are as a people. It's about respecting and protecting human dignity."
As Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said:
This is unacceptable. If America is about anything, it's about a value system. And at the very essence of that value system is the enshrinement of human autonomy.
We haven't always lived that goal. We fought a civil war to make sure that that goal proceeded. But it is a value we assert. And it is certainly not a value we can ever sit back and accept to be compromised, especially somebody in our employ.