Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT. Stephan Savoia/AP

Contractors seek changes in bill to curb human trafficking

Senate panel’s approval brightens prospects for passage.

A bill to impose new requirements on overseas contractors to help prevent human trafficking in war zones cleared a key Senate panel Thursday, but at least one contractor group is arguing for adjustments before the bill goes to President Obama’s desk.

The End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act (S 2234), sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, advanced by a voice vote of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A companion version passed the House in May as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The legislation would require companies with government contracts of more than $1 million to implement compliance plans to prevent human trafficking by policing against subcontractor practices of destroying or confiscating passports; misrepresenting wages or work location; using labor brokers who charge exorbitant recruiting fees; or supporting the procurement of commercial sex acts. It would require contractors with “credible evidence” of such abuses to notify their inspector general and would codify new requirements for remedial actions, including possible employee termination, suspension or debarment of the offending contractor.

The bill would affect more than 70,000 third-country nationals who work for contractors and subcontractors of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan under auspices of the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Current law prohibiting human trafficking is insufficient and ineffective, failing to prevent or punish abuses,” Blumenthal said. “By increasing preventive scrutiny and investigation, this legislation will stop egregious human rights abuses on U.S. military bases, increasing security for our troops and preventing waste of taxpayer dollars."

Portman noted a number of government investigations have identified a need to enhance existing protections against human trafficking in connection with overseas government contracts. “Although the overwhelming majority of U.S. contractors are honorable and law-abiding, we need to ensure that the best practices adopted by those contractors become standard practice across the industry,” he said.

Late last year, the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on procurement policy held a hearing that revealed human trafficking by contractors that explored practicesthat include seizing workers' passports to trap them at a work site, lying about compensation, engaging in sexual abuse and generally keeping workers in a state of indentured servitude.

"Personal autonomy is at the very heart of American values,” said House co-sponsor Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “Human trafficking is the antithesis of that value and can never, anywhere, be accepted by our government, its contractors or subcontractors, period.”

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., the other House co-sponsor, told Government Executive on Tuesday that he is pleased the Senate panel sees the issue as urgent. “We can no longer stand idly by and tolerate our government’s tacit support of the inhumane and immoral activity of human trafficking.” he said. “Using taxpayer dollars to support these conditions is immoral, inappropriate and un-American.”

Blumenthal’s staff also is optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

The crackdown has long been on the agenda of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. “It’s past time for Congress to hold contractors more accountable -- especially ending human trafficking funded by taxpayer dollars, but also closing loopholes and lowering the cap on outrageous payrolls paid for with taxpayer dollars,” POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury said after the House passed its version.

Some of the new requirements, however, do not sit well with the contracting community. Roger Jordan, vice president of government relations at the Professional Services Council, said while industry is fully “supportive of efforts to curb human trafficking, there are nuances that need to be addressed as the bill moves forward” to avoid some “unintended consequences.”

Three problems Jordan cited include the definition of “inhumane living conditions,” which, he says, “in a contingency environment could be subject to varying interpretations -- if you’re living in tents in the desert,” for example. The legislation’s requirement that contractors prepare a mitigation plan that addresses the issue before winning a contract should be altered to permit newcomers to prepare such a plan after they win an award, he added.

And finally, the legislation’s coverage of all contracts with work performed “predominantly overseas” contains a “low threshold of $500, 000,” Jordan said. If a contract is worth $10 million, that amount is actually a small proportion, he said, and should be changed to apply to contracts for which “a majority” of the work is done overseas.