WASHINGTON — “A majority of [the State Department’s]contract workers in certain Middle Eastern countries were paying substantial fees to recruiters, sometimes more than a year’s salary, resulting in…effective ‘debt bondage,’” said Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, while introducing the Trafficking Prevention in Foreign Affairs Contract Act on Feb. 27, 2015.
Rep. Ed Royce admitted that though the U.S. is committed to combating debt bondage, the U.S. has been unintentionally promoting it.
Debt bondage is a form of modern slavery (better known nowadays by its euphemism “human trafficking”). According to the State Department, debt bondage occurs when “traffickers or recruiters unlawfully exploit an initial debt the worker assumed as part of the terms of employment (emphasis added).”
Labor recruiters exploit the desperation of foreign workers to convince them to pay an exorbitant fee in exchange for a better chance at employment. Because workers cannot pay that fee right away, that fee quickly turns into debt. Recruiters and/or employers then use that debt to extract forced labor from workers.
Though the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 prohibits “unreasonable placement or recruitment fees” and provides a limit for such fees, there is no real definition for the term “recruitment fees.”
Thus, as the law currently stands, the word “unlawfully” is virtually meaningless.
To resolve this problem, the Trafficking Prevention in Foreign Affairs Contract Act would require the United States Agency for International Development to provide a definition for placement and recruitment fees.
Along with the definition, USAID would have to indicate “what fee components and amounts are prohibited or are permissible for contractors or their agents to charge workers under [section 106(g)(iv)(IV) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000].” This section permits the federal government to terminate contracts with those who in one of several acts that constitute or enable human trafficking.
A concrete definition would address the subtle coercion in unethical recruitment practices. The 2011 Middle East Office report cited in the bill found this type of coercion in the business practices of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Though workers were not “forcibly recruited to employers or directly bonded to their employers,” 77 percent of workers interviewed by the State Department still had to pay fees upfront during recruitment. These fees “effectively resulted in debt bondage at their destinations.”
The 2011 report uses the word “effectively” because debt bondage is a process and recruiter fees are merely the first step.
Recruitment fees place a foot in the door. To pay the fees, the workers must work. Before they can work, they often require various items such as “work permits, uniforms, or plane tickets.” The cost of these items are then deducted from workers’ paychecks, making it more difficult to pay the original debt.
Despite the difficulty, the workers interviewed for the 2011 report had to work and so endured “otherwise unacceptable work conditions.” Employers often confiscated theirs passports, limiting their movements. Workers then had to live in “overcrowded, unsafe or unsanitary conditions,” with each worker having the same amount of personal space found in a “federal minimum security prison” cell. Then, workers learned that some of the host countries (Oman and Saudi Arabia) did not even have an official minimum wage for foreign workers.
As a result of these conditions, the workers in the report were left with paychecks sporadically delivered and often inadequate by themselves to cover basic needs, send remittances and pay off debts. In one case, a foreign worker was stuck in Kuwait for eight years because he could not pay for airplane tickets back to his home country.
Debt bondage and slavery in general are still significant problems in countries examined in the 2011 report. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait “do not fully comply with the minimum standards [of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)]and are not making significant efforts to do so,” according to the State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. Meanwhile, Oman and the United Arab Emirates “do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”
The Trafficking Prevention in Foreign Affairs Contract Act would also allow the U.S. to make a significant effort to fighting world slavery. Such an effort extends beyond monitoring recruitment fees; it would involve cleaning house.
– Dean Delasalas