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Report from Yale Human Rights Clinic Finds U.S. Government Contractors Continue to Traffic and Abuse Foreign Workers in Iraq and Afghanistan

Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic has released a report on the ongoing trafficking and abuse of Third Country Nationals (TCNs). The report, “Victims of Complacency: The Ongoing Trafficking and Abuse of Third Country Nationals by U.S. Government Contractors,” examines the plight of the thousands of foreign workers hired every year through U.S. government contracts to work in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These workers – comprising what some have termed the “army behind the army” – hail primarily from developing countries such as India, the Philippines, Nepal, and Uganda. They perform low-wage but essential services, including construction, security, and food services.

As the report documents, many TCNs experience severe forms of abuse and exploitation at the hands of government contractors or agents operating on behalf of such contractors. Some arrive in war zones involuntarily and under false pretenses, enticed by promises of high-paying jobs elsewhere. Recruited from impoverished areas in their home countries, many TCNs borrow money at high interest rates from local loan sharks to cover the “recruitment fees” that illicit recruiters, hired by contractors or their sub-agents, demand of them. These fees, and the loans they necessitate, typically range from $1,000 to $5,000 – enormous sums in countries where the average person earns less than $1 per day.

Once on the worksite, TCNs, deceived and saddled with debt, find themselves with no choice but to live and work in unacceptable and unsafe conditions, often for years on end. The report finds that the conditions to which some government contractors subject TCNs constitute indentured servitude – in violation of U.S. and international labor and human rights laws. “The situation these people face amounts to a form of modern-day, U.S.-taxpayer funded slavery,” said Leah Zamore ’13, a member of the Lowenstein Clinic team that wrote the report.

“Victims of Complacency” also analyzes the U.S. government’s efforts to eliminate trafficking from its contracting industry. The report finds that these efforts fail to address the abuses to which contractors subject TCNs: TCNs remain without the protection they need, while accountability for malfeasant contractors exists on paper but not in practice. Ten years after the government announced a “zero tolerance” approach to trafficking, government agencies have yet to fine, let alone prosecute, a single contractor for trafficking or labor abuse – despite clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing. In fact, government contracting agencies, including the State Department, continue to award contracts to companies that engage in trafficking and forced labor.

The Lowenstein Clinic team conducted interviews with a wide range of experts and other actors, including government officials, journalists, attorneys, advocates, and representatives of the contracting industry. The team surveyed hundreds of pages of government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through Freedom of Information Act litigation. The team also traveled to India to interview Indian nationals who had worked for U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Based on these sources and an analysis of international and U.S. law, the Lowenstein Clinic team concluded: “The system of TCN recruitment and labor violates both domestic and international anti-trafficking law and forms part of a broader economy of contractor malfeasance that wastes tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars annually. By underpaying TCNs and charging them illicit recruitment fees, prime contractors, subcontractors, local recruiters, and a vast network of organized crime continue to profit from the trafficking and exploitation of TCNs.”

The Lowenstein Clinic’s report concludes with a number of recommendations designed to prevent trafficking and abuse, improve oversight and monitoring, and enforce existing accountability measures.

The full text of the report is available here.

The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic is a Yale Law School course that gives students practical experience in the range of human rights advocacy activities in which lawyers can engage to promote respect for human rights. The Lowenstein Clinic contributes directly to efforts to protect human rights by providing assistance to appropriate organizations and individual clients. The Clinic undertakes a wide variety of litigation and other advocacy projects. It has provided briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court and many other U.S., foreign and international courts. It has also produced reports and papers on many human rights issues.