The U.S. military said Tuesday that it had issued new orders to private contractors in Iraq to crack down on violations of human trafficking laws involving laborers brought from around the world to work at American bases and other sites.
An inspection completed in late March uncovered evidence that it was widespread practice among firms providing services to the military to take away their workers’ passports to keep them in place, military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers, many from South Asia, are employed by contractors at U.S. bases and elsewhere in Iraq as cooks, food servers, janitors, construction workers and in other menial jobs.
Human rights groups have reported complaints by some workers that they were tricked into coming into Iraq. After they paid fees to recruiters in their home countries for jobs said to be in the Gulf, their passports were taken and they were forced to go to Iraq, the workers said.
The groups have also reported complaints of withheld pay and overtime and unsuitable working and housing conditions.
The U.S. military inspection found that employers were violating U.S. law by withholding passports to prevent workers from jumping to other employers, Johnson said in a statement.
“The rights to freedom of movement and quality living standards are serious issues,” he said, and the U.S. military in Iraq “takes a zero tolerance approach to any violation.”
The military has ordered contractors and subcontractors at all levels to return worker passports no later than May 5 and write into contracts restrictions on how long employers can hold travel documents, he said.
Future U.S. military contracts with private firms will spell out “measurable, enforceable standards for living conditions” and require a minimum 50-square-foot personal living space for each worker.
Employers will also be required to provide workers copies of their contracts -- a response to complaints that employees are intentionally kept in the dark about terms of their work.
Johnson did not say whether the military was considering prosecuting any contractors or subcontractors.