Thursday, June 18, 2009

Excerpt- The Slave Next Door Pt. III

Ron Soodalter


Mayberry, an emergency medical technician, was horrified at the number of injuries and ailments among the 2,500 or so foreign laborers. Infected, unattended, sores and unbandaged wounds were common. There was a lack of disinfectant, hot water, any form of hygiene. Prescription pain killers, he testified, “were being handed out like a candy store…and then people were sent back to work... I told First Kuwaiti that you don’t give painkillers to people who are running machinery and working on heavy construction and they said, ‘that’s how we do it.’” After he requested an investigation into the deaths of two laborers as a result of what he believes could have been “medical homicide,” Mayberry was fired.

Owens confirmed the inhumane treatment. He testified that health and safety measures were non-existent, and that serious injuries took place as a result. When he advised workers to seek medical help for their injuries and illnesses, he was accused by the firm’s managers of “spoiling the workers and allowing them to simply skip work.” At one point, 17 laborers tried to escape by climbing over the wall; they were recaptured - with the help of a State Department official - and put in “virtual lockdown.”

First Kuwaiti responded in writing that the charges were “ludicrous.” State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard disputed the charges in a follow-up hearing, stating that his “limited review” and two visits to Baghdad had failed to verify the claims: “Nothing came to our attention that caused us to believe that trafficking-in-persons violations” – or any other serious abuses – “occurred at the construction workers’ camp at the new embassy compound.” In a written submission the anti-slavery organization Free the Slaves pointed to serious flaws in Krongard’s report. They noted that the State Department’s own Trafficking in Persons Report for 2007 revealed “a structure conducive to trafficking in persons” throughout much of the Middle East. This includes sponsorship laws that give employers control over workers’ ability to leave the work site, their job or the country. The TIP report observed “employers commonly do not provide workers with documents legitimizing their employment in the country … and refuse to sign exit permits allowing victims to leave the country, effectively holding the worker hostage.” Most damning, the Free the Slaves submission showed that while Krongard had gone to investigate a charge of human trafficking, he failed “to recognize the significance of, and appropriately characterize as warning signs: … the contractor’s practice of holding employee passports; terms of employment that raise concerns about exploitation, including the amount of payment relative to national standards, payment by the month rather than the day or hour, and a 14 day workweek, with no days off; the requirement to prepay recruitment, travel or other fees before obtaining control of earnings; and the fact that most workers interviewed either originated in countries whose laws prohibit work in Iraq, because of the strong possibility of abuse, and/or whose countries are identified by State’s TIP report as having a significant number of victims of severe trafficking to the Middle East.”

For his part, Chairman Waxman was also dissatisfied with Krongard’s methodology and conclusions. The inspector general, said Waxman, “had followed highly irregular procedures in exonerating the prime contractor, First Kuwaiti Trading Company, of charges of labor trafficking.” On September 18, 2007, Waxman began an inquiry into accusations that Krongard had repeatedly hindered fraud and abuse investigations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The allegations were supported by information from several of Krongard’s current and former employees, some of whom sought whistleblower status to protect them from punishment for malfeasance. Congressman Waxman stated to Krongard, “One consistent element in these allegations is that you believe your foremost mission is to support the Bush administration, especially with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than act as an independent and objective check on waste, fraud and abuse on behalf of U.S. taxpayers.”

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