Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of desperate workers from nations such as Bangladesh, Nepal and the Fiji Islands in recent years have fallen victim to deceitful traffickers who lure them to war zones with the promise of steady work, but then force them to pay commissions and borrow from loan sharks before trapping them in degrading jobs in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Yet not a single prosecution or contractor termination has been documented, witnesses said, a state of affairs that agency representatives could do little to explain.
"These substandard labor practices violate every human value we hold as a country," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform, which called a hearing to explore agency handling of U.S-hired subcontractors who abet or tolerate the criminal schemes.
Despite some 20 laws and regulations and a zero tolerance policy in effect since enactment of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the rights abuses continue, according to an array of witnesses from nonprofits and the Congressional Research Service. Many cited a June article in The New Yorker magazine by Sarah Stillman detailing the problem, as well as efforts to combat it going back to U.S. involvement in Bosnia in the 1990s.
"I am stunned that these practices are allowed," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "Taking away human autonomy is perhaps the most absolute crime, as in murder and slavery." He said, "the system protects itself rather than the victim" because contractors under whose operations such practices are conducted have a financial incentive to not report problems or pursue prosecutions.
A January audit by the State Department's inspector general found that in the Persian Gulf states, 77 percent of contract employees had to pay upfront fees to job recruiters, which is a sign of possible bondage, and that all the surveyed contractors confiscated the workers' passports.
Witnesses at the hearing generally agreed that current laws and regulations are sufficient but that too little is being done to put those tools to work. "There is not enough transparency in prime contracts, or an incentive to report" problems, said attorney Sam MaCahon, a specialist in procurement fraud who does pro bono work to help victims of trafficking. "And the Defense Department people who can make a difference don't pay enough attention."
He noted that recruiting fees can be appropriate but are defined by host countries, which creates a conflict for U.S. contractors, who must obey local laws. "People don't understand suspension and debarment," he added. "It's a business decision, not a criminal or civil matter."
David Isenberg, a policy analyst with a long involvement in investigating trafficking, said suspension and debarment -- an agency move that can prevent companies and individuals from participating in government contracts -- is "rarely used because it is blocked by the policies of groups such as the Professional Services Council and the International Stability Operations Association." Isenberg said he had received a firsthand report about victimization, but after he helped the person email details to State and Defense, the person heard nothing for months.
The Professional Services Council, as Alan Chvotkin, its executive vice president and counsel, told Government Executive, strongly supports zero tolerance for human trafficking by contractors, but said that Isenberg's notion of suspension and debarment is a "fallacy." This sounds like "using suspension and debarment as punishment for bad behavior, but that's not what the rules are all about," Chvotkin said. "They're designed to protect government's interest in only dealing with responsible companies in the future."
Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the Project on Government Oversight, said U.S. contractors are confused about overseas jurisdictions for criminal and civil penalties, and the rules against trafficking are supposed to apply to subcontractors as well as prime contractors. "Agencies are loath to do suspension and debarment unless there's a successful prosecution," he said, saying a high-profile prosecution, perhaps a "fact-based" debarment predicated on well-documented noncompliance, might be a deterrent.
Michael Howard, chief operating officer of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, says his group, which has 300 employees working with 3,000 overseas contract workers, promulgated a bill of rights and has banned its contractors from taking away workers' passports. "AAFES does not have police powers," he said. "We cannot force contractors to do anything. What AAFES does have is the power of contracting . . . The ability to take the contract away for violations of our policy is very persuasive."
Kenneth Moorefield, deputy Defense inspector general for special plans and operations," called the trafficking problem among contractors a "systematic challenge." He said a January review of 36 contracts in U.S. Central Command showed that 79 percent had a combatting trafficking in persons clause. But he agreed he had no good answers to why it is difficult to hold contract officers responsible for attacking the crimes.
Linda Dixon, program manager for Combating Trafficking in Persons, a project of the undersecretary of Defense for personnel readiness, gave the panel a run-down on the Pentagon's training in combatting human trafficking that has been mandatory since 2007. She mentioned PowerPoints and mobile device training, workshops, conferences, a campaign of public service announcements and best practices learned from nongovernmental organizations. But she said did not know whether contract officers are taking responsibility on the issue and victims are being interviewed.
Both Lankford and Connolly criticized her approach. "We need something beyond posting something in cafeteria or a hot line," Lankford said.
Connolly was surprised when Dixon said she had never traveled to Iraq. "You haven't made it your business to go over there and kick the tires and make sure" it's being taken care of? he asked.
Evelyn Klemstine, assistant inspector general for audits at the State Department, said agency managers need greater awareness, contractor representatives who are more proactive and a hot line for victims.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., reported that such a hot line already exists but that there are language barriers for victims. "I'm frustrated," she said. "It's not like it isn't happening under our noses. But the focus is on dotting i's and crossing t's, rather than doing something about the underlying problem."