A Morally Reprehensible Problem

I confess: I have an interest in an unseemly topic. Last year I coauthored a report on the subject and testified before Congress about it. The subject is labor trafficking.

So let's give credit where it is due. On May 1, the International Stability Operations Association, a leading private military and security contracting trade association and the American Bar Association hosted a Combating Labor Trafficking: Legal and Compliance Mechanisms in the Fight Against Forced Labor conference. The coordinating partners for the event were such major companies as DynCorp International, Triple Canopy, FSI Worldwide, and Principal Risk Solutions.

This is not, of course, a problem exclusive to the PMSCO sector but neither is it something that has happened only now and then either. Suffice it to say that it enough of a problem that this is the second conference ISOA organized on the issue, the first being seven years ago. The conference program guide minced no words in stating why a conference is necessary:

Labor trafficking is a disgraceful practice that plagues many country as well as international peacekeeping and stability operations. Poverty creates pools of desperate labor at high risk of human trafficking of all kinds, including forced labor. The problem is morally reprehensible but of such enormous complexity it cannot be solved by a single sector and must be addressed by stakeholders working in partnership from all sides -- private, governmental, nongovernmental and humanitarians sectors; clients and employers

As a sign that of its recognition of the seriousness of the problem ISOA's Code of Conduct has long had a provision stating that "Signatories shall not engage or allow their personnel to engage in the act of trafficking in persons."

Trafficking in persons takes different forms. It might be forced labor, sex trafficking or bonded labor, to name a few examples. The first two types have happened in the PMSC industry.

As an article in JIPO notes:

Human trafficking on U.S. government contracts in the Central Command ("CENTCOM") sector is chronic, overt and unabated. The appalling fact that hundreds of thousands of men have been used as slave laborers to support "freedom" operations is not lost upon the victims.

Investigative journalists reporting of widespread human trafficking of laborers on U.S. government contracts in CENTCOM date back to 2004. The New York Times reported the too common fraudulent recruiting scheme that began in 2003 when contractors first started trafficking men to perform services on government contracts. The Chicago Tribune also covered human trafficking in 2005, calling out the use of US tax dollars to provide slave labor during wartime. Articles in USA Today have reported labor trafficking abuses of Asian workers in Saudi Arabia as well as forced labor of Thai workers in the United States, considered "the nations biggest human trafficking operations."

Personal investigations both on the ground in Iraq, and in conducted interviews of victims who have returned to the Indian subcontinent, have produced conclusions consistent with other investigative journalists. Other investigative journalists such as David Phinney and reporters who have been on the ground, observed the practice and interviewed thousands of victims have also highlighted this blight on our national image. In fact, the only thing parties agree upon is that the practice is prolific, unabated and contrary to the very foundation and core of American values.

A more blunt way of putting is, as one conference speaker noted, is that we now have people enslaved than at any time in human history, with estimates ranging from 12 to 27 million people.

Interestingly, this is not an issue where people think this is something best left to industry to self-regulate. As the morning keynote speaker Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, senior adviser to the secretary of state, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said:

Government is the answer, government is the solution, but it is not the only player. We have to dismiss the notion that this is someone else's problem. This is our problem and we have to be part of the solution. Our starting point has to be that we're not making the problem worse.

Those wanting more detail should see the current (May/June) issue of ISOA's JIPO magazine, which is devoted to the subject. According to ISOA it will be online later this week.