The Pentagon relies on an army of foreign workers in places like Afghanistan and Iraq to construct its base camps and prepare hot meals for troops so they can focus on warfighting. But for years, there have been reports of the abuse of workers hired to support overseas U.S. military operations.
While the Department of Defense officially has a zero-tolerance policy against human trafficking, oversight in some places has been inconsistent, according to a just-released study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“These workers are vulnerable because they have often left their home countries to seek employment and a higher standard of living elsewhere,” according to the GAO report.
Congress included a provision in the conference report for the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act for the GAO to review the Pentagon’s efforts to combat trafficking linked to overseas contract work. Some Army and Navy contracting officers interviewed by the GAO investigators said they weren’t aware of their responsibilities to combat human trafficking.
The Department of Defense requires contracting officers to provide oversight to prevent trafficking but doesn’t say how they should do it, according to the GAO investigators. Most of the contracting officer representatives who were interviewed said they received some amount of training on the subject but not what was required for their field as acquisition professionals.
“Until DoD provides guidance to explain how contracting personnel should oversee contractor [human trafficking] compliance and ensures they take the correct training, contracting personnel may continue to be unaware of their … responsibilities,” the GAO officials said in their report.
Military officials say they regularly conduct investigations into human trafficking at overseas U.S. bases. A subcontractor at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait was accused of forcing third-country employees to take other jobs and not paying them for the work they completed. Another complaint came from a PX employee at a U.S. base in Qatar who said workers were being forced to sign paperwork indicating they had been paid, although they never received the funds owed to them. Meanwhile, another company was investigated after being accused of controlling workers by withholding access to their own passports.
Some U.S. military officials are inconsistent in how they report incidents of human trafficking at overseas bases. The Department of Defense guidance and federal regulations have different requirements for who is responsible for reporting the cases.
“The Army has not developed clarifying guidance,” the GAO officials said. “Without accurate reporting of actions taken against contractors in this database, contracting officers will lack complete information when making future award decisions involving contractors that engaged in” human trafficking.
As part of their report to Congress, the GAO investigators made several recommendations to the Department of Defense about combating trafficking.
“We recommend that DoD issue guidance, train staff and report actions taken against non-compliant contractors to protect foreign workers,” they said.