During a hearing on the oversight of subcontractors in war zones, the Wartime Contracting Commission on Monday cited the Center for Public Integrity/Washington Post investigation into the difficulty of enforcing a U.S. ban on contractors engaging in sex trafficking. It also delved into numerous instances of human trafficking and pressed government witnesses and contractors, especially Houston-based Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR), on what they’re doing to stop these abuses.
Subcontractors are companies that work for “prime” contractors, which have a direct contractual relationship with the Pentagon or U.S. government.
“We all saw recently a news article that says the buck is being passed around here” regarding allegations of human trafficking, said Charles Tiefer, a commission member. “And that is, the IG sends it to somebody else, the criminal people say it’s not ours, and the program manager says it’s not ours.”
“I wonder whether you would favor formalizing the responsibilities, so the program manager has to follow up any allegations,” Tiefer asked three government witnesses. That means a subcontractor or military contracting officer would be “obliged to follow up any allegations of human trafficking and cannot simply say ‘I’ve delegated that to somebody else’.”
All three endorsed Tiefer’s proposition — Edward Harrington, an Army procurement official; Cathy Read, the State Department’s head of acquisition; and Drew Luten, a U.S. Agency for International Development official. Another commission member, Katherine Schinasi, pointedly asked the government witnesses if they knew of any companies barred from competing for contracts because of human trafficking. None did.
During questioning of a KBR official, Commissioner Grant Green asked how the company made sure its subcontractors comply with the U.S. government’s anti-human trafficking clause, which is mandatory in federal contracts.
“We do have a very robust program to monitor the trafficking-in-persons flow down requirement to our subcontractors,” responded Cheryl Ritondale, KBR’s director of procurement. KBR has a team of professionals to inspect labor camps in foreign countries and other means of detection “so we can identify any problems,” she said.
Green wasn’t satisfied with Ritondale’s answer: “You say you have a robust plan. Let me read a couple examples here to you, if I might,” Green said before recounting the following KBR-related incidents:
* A Nepalese company, Moonlight Consulting, charged a number of Nepalese men a “large fee” and transferred them to Morningstar, a Jordanian job brokerage company, which in turn transferred the men to a KBR subcontractor, Daoud & Partners “for a substantial profit,” Green said. The men “relinquished their passports,” were “held in a dark windowless room,” and were told they would be paid only three-quarters of what they were promised while in Jordan, he said. When they finally went to Iraq to work, they travelled in an unprotected convoy on a highway from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. Insurgents attacked the convoy, hijacked it, and publicly executed 12 of the Nepalese men.
* First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Company, a KBR subcontractor, gave Indian men plane tickets that identified their destination as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, but promptly flew them to Iraq instead. Another group of Nepalese men in Jordan were transferred to First Kuwaiti and driven to Iraq. “Their passports were taken and with the burden of a large recruiting fee hanging over their heads, they had little or no choice other than to go,” Green said.
* After a group of Sri Lankan men brought to Kuwait refused to go on to Iraq, First Kuwaiti General Trading “gave them an ultimatum: agree to travel to Iraq and get more food and water; refuse and get nothing. Be put out in the street in Kuwait City and find your way home. Their [the Sri Lankans’] response: ‘We could not go back, we did not have a ticket, a passport, or money,’” Green said.
“I’ve got more [examples] if you want to hear them,” Green added.
KBR’s Ritondale responded she was not familiar with those specific cases. “But I will tell you that as part of the trafficking persons inspections today, and even into the past, monitoring that the fact those employees are each holding their passport, and that those passports are not being withheld from those employees, is an important element of the inspections that we do.”
“These must have just been exceptions then,” responded Green.
“I believe these may be older instances, but I can check and get that information back to the Commission,” Ritondale said.
Last year, Jo Frederiksen, a former KBR manager, filed an employment harassment lawsuit that also alleged some KBR managers in Iraq were co-owners of a brothel in Thailand. Her Texas lawsuit accused the managers of violating the trafficking-in-persons clause of KBR’s contracts with the federal government.
The clause and the company’s own new policy forbid contractor employees from being involved in the operation of brothels, since it is often unclear if the women working in them are there voluntarily or are trafficking victims. The new KBR policy was first revealed in May on a blog called Ms. Sparky run by Debbie Crawford, a former KBR employee who tracks allegations of human trafficking and abetting of prostitution by contractors.
KBR denies Frederiksen’s allegations of workplace harassment and that some KBR employees co-owned a brothel in Thailand.
“When she resigned, Ms. Frederiksen told KBR the reason for her departure was because she wanted to return home and be with family,” Heather Browne, a KBR spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to the Center.
“KBR’s investigation has not substantiated the remaining allegations raised in Ms. Frederiksen’s complaint. The company maintains and enforces policies prohibiting trafficking in persons and requires all employees to participate in training on these policies. KBR also maintains and enforces policies prohibiting retaliation as alleged by Ms. Frederiksen,” Brown wrote.
Recently, Crawford’s blog broke news of a July 20 memo from the U.S. military’s Central Command ordering contractors to return employees from nations that prohibit them from working in Iraq – such as Nepal and the Philippines – to their home countries. “In the past three weeks, eight third country nationals (TCNs), several from countries whose current domestic laws prohibit their citizens from working in Iraq, were discovered to have been left behind by their previous employers at various contractor controlled camps (A.K.A. ‘mancamps’) throughout Iraq,” the memo states.