What the U.S. Government Knew About Najlaa

A bit over a year ago a report I co-wrote, documenting human trafficking and abuse of workers by Najlaa International Catering Services, a KBR subcontractor, was published by the Project on Government Oversight.

The internal company documents I uncovered revealed, among other things, that U.S. authorities were aware of the deplorable living conditions Najlaa workers endured back in 2008. To their credit both the U.S. government and KBR both worked to pressure Najlaa to fix things once they were alerted to the problem.

But, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, newly released documents reveal that the U.S. government and KBR were even more aware of the problem than previously known.

In July 2011 the ACLU filed a lawsuit demanding that the government release documents relating to the trafficking and the abusive treatment of foreign workers on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case sought documents from the Departments of State and Defense that detail audits and complaints about military contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bear in mind this is hardly an isolated problem. As the New York Times reported:

On every military base in Iraq and Afghanistan exists an economy sustained by immigrant workers. For transportation, construction, food services, security and more, the United States government relies on 174,000 laborers, 70,000 of them recruited from developing countries like Nepal, India, the Philippines and Uganda.

But not all of these workers voluntarily leave home to serve alongside the United States military. According to a report released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lowenstein Clinic at Yale Law School, many of these workers are tricked into working for American contractors and subcontractors who abuse them with "impunity" and subject them to grueling hours, meager wages, confinement and deadly working conditions.

The ACLU report notes that while the U.S. government has ample criminal jurisdiction to investigate and refer prosecutions to the appropriate body of contractors at any level it often sidesteps its legal obligations on technicalities.

In response to the highly publicized incident involving 1,000 Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Indian TCNs--whom Najlaa International confined to a windowless warehouse without money or work for three months247 --the DOJ determined in 2009 that, "while certainly disconcerting, the facts and circumstances did not suggest that Human Trafficking Violations had occurred." This conclusion turned primarily on the fact that "TCN personnel housed in the above described complex were free to leave if they had decided to do so." On the contrary, TCNs rarely enjoy such freedom: as explained in detail above, contractors employ a range of tactics--including confiscating TCNs' passports, restricting their movement, withholding their pay, and charging them "termination fees"--to prevent TCNs from leaving the worksites. Meanwhile, the debts many TCNs owe render them vulnerable to indentured servitude, even in the absence of such tactics. Nor has this dynamic entirely escaped the notice of the U.S. Government: in a State Department email, one official acknowledged that the Najlaa incident involved "essentially the trafficking of low-skilled expat workers into forced labor or poor working conditions."251 Nevertheless, the Government continues to award Najlaa new service contracts, including one that lasts through 2012.

Many months before POGO published my report it was clear that the Defense Department was aware of what was going on with Najlaa. According to one incident report dated February 18, 2009, prepared by the DoD Inspector General, and released by the ACLU:

Many employees of the Najla International Catering Services (a subcontractor of KBR and a Kuwaiti company) were allegedly living in deplorable conditions (crowded housing in shacks and bunkhouses, open sewers, lack of food and water, rampant diseases like TB and Hepatitis). KBR employees brought the issue to the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate who in turn brought it to DoD-IG. DoD-IG met with KBR and a plan was developed and initiated to send in the US Army Units to assess their status and provide humanitarian assistance.

Ano0ther DoD IG report, dated Feb. 18, 2009, stated:

The TCN's [Third Country Nationals] were predominately fro111 Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. The men claimed they were being given very little food and water. Some weeks they were fed once every other day, and three men were expected to share one bottle of water a day. Those individuals with beds were sleeping three and four men to every twin bed. The sewage was drained to an above ground "cess-pool" approximately 100 yards from the camp. The TCN's stated there were a variety of sicknesses present in the camp, such as Hepatitis, Tuberculosis and Chicken Pox. There was no access to medical attention for the men at the camp.