The Najlaa Episode Revisited
Documents Reveal Details of Alleged Labor Trafficking by KBR Subcontractor
By David Isenberg and Nick Schwellenbach | Jun 14, 2011
Originally published by the Project On Government Oversight
(used with permission)
“DOD contractors and their subcontractors in Iraq have victimized more than 250,000 men. That number does not include other agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, which uses TCN-contracted labor in support of its operations.”
In December 2008, South Asian workers, two thousand miles or more from their homes, staged a protest on the outskirts of Baghdad. The reason: Up to 1,000 of them had been confined in a windowless warehouse and other dismal living quarters without money or work for as long as three months.
In a typical comment made by the laborers to news organizations at the time, Davidson Peters, a 42-year-old Sri Lankan man, told a McClatchy Newspapers reporter
that “They promised us the moon and stars…While we are here, wives have left their husbands and children have been shut out of their schools” because money for their families back home had dried up.
The men came to Iraq lured by the promise of employment by Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor performing work for Houston-based KBR, Inc. under the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) III contract.
Now, a cache of internal corporate and government documents obtained by POGO offer insight into this episode of alleged war zone human trafficking by companies working for the U.S.—and suggest that hardly anyone has been held accountable for what may be violations of U.S. law.
The subcontractor, Najlaa, appears to have suffered no repercussions for its role in luring hundreds of South Asian workers to Iraq with promises of lucrative jobs only to turn around and warehouse at least 1,000 of them in dismal living conditions without work—and pay—for several months. In fact, Najlaa continues to win government contracts.
Despite strongly worded “zero tolerance” policies against human trafficking, the U.S. has directly awarded contracts to Najlaa after the December 2008 protests, including one contract that lasts through 2012.
The Najlaa Incident: An Accountability Case Study
The freshly unearthed documents show that for several months, KBR employees expressed exasperation at Najlaa’s apparent abuse of the laborers and said the subcontractor was embarrassing KBR in front of its main client in Iraq: the U.S. military. But despite its own employees’ strongly worded communications to Najlaa, to this day, KBR continues to award subcontracts to the company.
The documents also suggest that Najlaa rehired former KBR employees who were terminated for what appear to be trafficking-in-persons violations. It is not clear what, if any, repercussions these employees faced besides their termination.
Additionally, the documents raise questions about government officials’ response in the wake of the 2008 protests by Najlaa employees. Although, at the time, the press reported that the U.S. government was investigating alleged trafficking by Najlaa, it has not led to any prosecution or termination of the subcontract. A Sri Lankan company that supplied laborers to Najlaa told POGO it complained about Najlaa’s abusive practices to both KBR and the U.S. government, but said that U.S. law enforcement agencies never followed up.
Revisiting the December 2008 episode isn’t just a historical exercise. Besides its continuing work with KBR, Najlaa is still winning government contracts, such as a recent $3 million contract to provide food services for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Baghdad from February 2010 to February 2012.
According to a 2006 State Department report on human trafficking, a “DOD investigation, prompted by late 2005 media allegations of labor trafficking in Iraq, identified a number of abuses, some of them considered widespread, committed by DOD contractors or subcontractors of third country national (TCN) workers in Iraq.” The State Department said in response to the investigation that the “Department of Defense has responded swiftly with a number of measures to closely monitor the hiring and employment of foreign laborers.” The DOD’s response, the State Department assured, would “ensure the U.S. employs a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against human trafficking.” But clearly having policies on the books alone did not ensure anything — besides the Najlaa episodes, there have been many instances of alleged trafficking and third country national worker abuse. Is it really “zero tolerance” when there are no repercussions?
Read the whole report here.
David Isenberg has been an observer and commentator on private military and security contracting since its modern birth in the 1980s. He is the author of the book Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog The PMSC Observer is the leading online resource for news and current events pertaining to subject of private military and security. Nick Schwellenbach is POGO’s Director of Investigations.