Slavery, alive and well

Sam McCahon Contributor
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While the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery and indentured servitude in 1865, both practices are alive and well today in U.S. Government combat zone contracting. That’s despite the fact that a law that was designed to end these abhorrent practices has now been in place for ten years.

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the law that was supposed to protect victims of the modern-day slavery known as “Trafficking in Persons,” was enacted with great flourish and self congratulation. Yet 10 years later — with the prevalence of labor trafficking in government contracting common knowledge throughout government, law enforcement and contractor circles — not a single case has ever been filed by the government and no contractor has ever been suspended under the law’s provisions.

The more than 250,000 trafficking victims who have worked on U.S. Government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan are victims of both apathy and enforcement failures. These men — virtually no women are hired — are designated by the government as Third Country Nationals (TCNs), natives of countries other than the U.S., and most come from developing nations like India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Impoverished, they are willing to risk their lives and endure significant hardships to provide for their families. Often uneducated, unable to speak either English or the host country’s native language, the TCNs are powerless to protect themselves.

Like many of the prostitutes trafficked worldwide for commercial sex, the government-contracted TCNs are often deceived about their pay, work and living conditions. Some are told that they are going to be working in non-combat areas such as Jordan or Dubai, only to find that their plane has landed in Iraq. Their passports are confiscated for “safekeeping” and they are housed like animals in cramped and unsafe living conditions. Some are promised work in their trades and vocations, only to find themselves acting as servants and custodians for Westerners.

TCNs are almost always required to pay an illegal recruiting fee, and once they arrive in-country, forced to work — having neither the means nor the money to return home. Like rockets and mortars, trafficking in TCNs has become an institutionalized part of the combat zone landscape.

The average worker must labor for a year to pay off the illegal recruiting fee they must pay their recruiter, who in turns splits the money through a kick-back scheme with the government contractor’s management personnel. The contractor acts with impunity because the government never asks questions.

A January 2010 report by the Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) determined that worldwide there was only a single preliminary investigation into trafficking on government contracts. That matter occurred in Iraq. The contractor took “corrective action,” the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was briefed and the department concluded that no further action would be taken.

The same DOD IG report found that more than 50 percent of the 99 contracts reviewed did not even contain the clause mandated by the trafficking statute that informs contractors of conduct constituting trafficking-in-persons violations. Not surprisingly, the report went on to say, the contractors interviewed were not even aware that trafficking in persons was illegal. Trafficking victims have been murdered by insurgents as a direct and proximate cause of their being deceived by traffickers about work locations. Others have returned home, destitute because of the fraudulent labor practices that enticed them to borrow money from loan sharks to pay the illegal recruiting fee. Unable to make the payments because of wages amounting to a fraction of those promised, a few have had their daughters taken and forced into prostitution in lieu of payments. To varying degrees, all have suffered as victims. None have been compensated or protected.

As a former federal prosecutor who has also lived in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, I was always struck by the stark contrast between the unabated and prolific magnitude of human trafficking on government contracts with the government’s “zero tolerance” trafficking policy.

Articles have been published, statutes enacted, regulations drafted and conferences conducted. Nonetheless, no one from the government protects these men we call TCNs and no one punishes their oppressors. As a nation, how can we presume to lead the worldwide fight on human trafficking when we don’t even take action to stem the tide of trafficking in combat zones, where the U.S. government is both catalyst and customer?

Sam McCahon is the founder of an international law practice based out of Washington, D.C. focusing on U.S. government contracting and corporate compliance. He is a frequent speaker and respected author in the area of government contractor compliance matters. Email: sam@mccahonlaw.com.