WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq has ordered sweeping changes for privatized military support operations after confirming violations of laws against human-trafficking and other abuses by contractors involving possibly thousands of foreign workers on American bases, according to records obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr. ordered that contractors be required by May 1 to return passports that have been illegally confiscated from laborers on U.S. bases after determining that such practices violated U.S. laws against trafficking for forced or coerced labor. Human brokers and subcontractors from South Asia to the Middle East have worked together to import thousands of laborers into Iraq from impoverished countries.
Two memos obtained by the Tribune indicate that Casey's office concluded that the practice of confiscating passports from such workers was widespread on American bases and in violation of the U.S. anti-trafficking laws.
The memos, including an order dated April 4 and titled "Subject: Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in MNF-I," or Multinational Forces-Iraq, say the military also confirmed a host of other abuses during an inspection of contracting activities supporting the U.S. military in Iraq. They include deceptive hiring practices; excessive fees charged by overseas job brokers who lure workers into Iraq; substandard living conditions once laborers arrive; violations of Iraqi immigration laws; and a lack of mandatory "awareness training" on U.S. bases concerning human trafficking.
Along with a separate memo from a top military procurement official to all contractors in Iraq, dated April 19 and titled, "Withholding of Passports, Trafficking in Persons," Casey's orders promise harsh actions against firms that fail to return passports or end other abusive practices. Contracts could be terminated, contractors could be blacklisted from future work, and commanders could physically bar firms from bases, the memos show.
"Contracts must incorporate appropriate language to compel the protection of individual rights" at the contract and subcontract levels, Casey's orders say, adding that it was his goal "to promote [the] rule of law in Iraq and in the labor recruiting process."
Under future contracts, Casey is requiring that all firms, no matter how far down the chain, "provide workers with a signed copy of their employment contract that defines the terms of their employment."
He is ordering that contracts include "measurable, enforceable standards for living conditions [e.g., sanitation, health, safety, etc.] and establish 50 feet as the minimum acceptable square footage of personal living space per worker," after finding that some conditions were substandard.
Contractors and subcontractors also must "comply with international laws" regarding transit, exit and entry procedures, "requirements for work visas," and Iraqi immigration laws.
The orders also mandate that future contracts and subcontracts include "language that prohibits contractors and subcontractors at all tiers from utilizing unlicensed recruiting firms, or firms that charge illegal recruiting fees."
The short-term impact of the orders is unclear, because the separate memo to contractors, which is dated April 19 and written by Col. Robert K. Boyles, a top official with the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan, shows many of the reforms would be implemented by changes in the language in future contracts.
Nonetheless, the findings and actions represent a dramatic turnabout for the U.S. military, and come after three months of behind-the-scenes pressure on the Defense Department from State Department officials charged with monitoring and combating human trafficking worldwide.
The State Department launched an investigation and promised other actions this year in response to a series published Oct. 9-10 by the Tribune, "Pipeline to Peril," that detailed many of the abuses now noted in the memos.
The articles disclosed the often-illicit networks used to recruit low-skilled laborers from some of the world's most impoverished and remote locales to work in menial jobs on American bases in Iraq.
Although other firms also have contracts supporting the military in Iraq, the U.S. has outsourced vital support operations to Halliburton subsidiary KBR at an unprecedented scale, at a cost to the United States of more than $12 billion as of late last year.
KBR, in turn, has outsourced much of that work to more than 200 subcontractors, many of them based in Middle Eastern nations condemned by the United States for failing to stem human trafficking into their own borders or for perpetrating other human rights abuses against foreign workers.
About 35,000 of the 48,000 people working under the privatization contract last year were "Third Country Nationals," who are non-Americans imported from outside Iraq, KBR has said.
"Pipeline to Peril," which was based on reporting in the United States, Jordan, Iraq, Nepal and Saudi Arabia, described how some subcontractors and a chain of human brokers allegedly engaged in the same kinds of abuses routinely condemned by the State Department as human trafficking.
Melissa Norcross, a Halliburton spokeswoman, issued a statement from the company yesterday saying that KBR "fully supports the Department of Defense's efforts to ensure that all contractor and subcontractor personnel working for the U.S. government be treated in a fair and humanitarian manner."
Cam Simpson writes for the Chicago Tribune. Tribune foreign correspondent Liz Sly contributed to this article from Baghdad.