LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of foreign workers on United States government overseas contracts have paid large recruitment fees to secure their jobs, according to a watchdog, raising fears of human trafficking in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf states.
Some workers reported paying an average of $3,000, almost five months' salary, to get their jobs, and the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) said such fees could lead to bonded labour and other abuses.
A report by the GAO said that, despite pledging otherwise, contractors used by the U.S. government to provide construction, maintenance and security services overseas were charging workers for jobs.
In the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which covers sex-trafficking victims, Congress included a requirement for the GAO to report on the use of foreign workers overseas, including those on U.S. government contracts.
Thomas Melito, director of International Affairs and Trade Issues at GAO, said there was a concern that not clearly defining what constitutes a recruitment fee allowed "too much room for interpretation".
The report found that fees paid by workers included the cost of plane tickets, lodging, passport and visa fees and medical screening, among other expenses.
"If a worker needs a passport to go overseas to work, all companies charge a fee for that. Is it considered a recruitment fee or not, that's unclear. The worker will also need a visa, and who pays for that?" Melito told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Washington.
"The danger of not being clear on fees and transactions is that it creates potential loopholes, which can be exploited," Melito added.
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
The GAO said that between September 2012 and April 2014, more than 1,900 foreign workers on one contract reported paying fees for their jobs.
This included payments to recruitment agencies used by a subcontractor, which signed statements saying that they would not charge any fees to candidates in 2012 and 2013.
The report also found that in several cases, U.S. agencies did not monitor the contractors' efforts to combat human trafficking, while some contracting officials said they did not understand their responsibility to oversee the issue.
There have been allegations of abuse of foreign workers on government contracts overseas, including human trafficking, since the 1990s, the GAO said.
In 2002, the United States adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding government employees and contractors engaging in human trafficking abroad, and in 2007 it made the inclusion of this policy in all contracts compulsory.
Current policies governing the payment of recruitment fees by foreign workers do not provide clear instructions to agencies or contractors regarding what amounts are permissible, the GAO said.
The report called for agencies including the Department of Defense, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a more precise definition of recruitment fees and ensure that human trafficking does not take place.
"We want to empower the responsible contracting officer, to know whether or not an abuse is taking place, and to reduce the possibility of human trafficking occurring," Melito said. (Editing by Tim Pearce)