U.S. Embassy contractors in Saudi Arabia may be abusing employees

State Department watchdog cites ‘anecdotal’ evidence of labor trafficking

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Is the United States inadvertently supporting labor trafficking in Saudi Arabia? A new State Department inspector general (IG) report acknowledges its Riyadh embassy’s challenges in preventing contractors from engaging in labor trafficking, but doesn’t disclose whether trafficking is actually occurring. However, a January letter from the State Department IG to Congress, obtained by the Center, said IG inspectors did find some evidence of trafficking at the embassy.

Saudi Arabia has long been criticized by the U.S. government and civil rights groups for labor trafficking. Men and women from South and Southeast Asia, as well as East Africa, travel to the kingdom to work as low-skilled laborers and some “face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude,” according to the State Department’s annual anti-human trafficking report last year. The Saudi government shows no “significant political commitment” to addressing involuntary servitude, the anti-trafficking report notes, “indeed, an official responsible for such matters has denied that trafficking in persons takes place in Saudi Arabia.” The Saudi embassy did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.

At the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, inspectors found “anecdotal evidence of some behavior that could be classified as labor trafficking,” such as withholding passports, garnishing wages, and summary dismissal of employees working for embassy contractors, according to the IG letter, dated Jan. 15, 2010.

The January letter also hinted at trafficking issues elsewhere in the region. “Other inspections have yielded similar findings” at other American embassies in the Middle East, the letter states, and there are “several reports in draft that will provide greater detail.”

Some believe the U.S. government itself could be doing more to battle labor trafficking.

“There has been nearly a decade of less than robust implementation on the contractor side” of the anti-trafficking law, said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. referring to a 2000 law he sponsored that aims to prevent human trafficking overseas and domestically. Smith said more needs to be done to stop government contractors from engaging in labor trafficking or sex trafficking, in which women and children are sexually exploited against their will.

The new State Department IG report, released last Thursday, includes only general information about the difficulty in preventing contractors working for the embassy from abusing foreign workers.

“Ensuring that contractors comply with the intent of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, as it relates to the protection and treatment of contractors’ employees, is a significant challenge for Mission Saudi Arabia,” the report notes. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Report Coming on Other U.S. Embassies

Doug Welty, a spokesman for the State Department IG, said a forthcoming audit report will go into more detail about what auditors found this spring at U.S. embassies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

“You’ll have to wait for the report,” Welty said. “The audit will have more detail.”

The State Department’s IG inspectors did not delve as deeply into the issue as the department’s auditors, Welty said. “The reason why the inspection report has a recommendation at all is they wanted to put a marker in the sand to show that they’re looking into this.”

The primary area of concern appears to be with contractors who perform service work for the U.S. embassy.

“Mission Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on third country labor and has contracted for gardening and janitorial services with estimated total values (based on a five-year contract) of $1.6 million and $2.5 million respectively,” says the IG report.

The inspection report and letter do not say whether or not the contractors are foreign companies or U.S. companies. However, unnamed “Miscellaneous Foreign Contractors” are on a five-year State Department contract for “gardening services” in Saudi Arabia, according to USAspending.gov, the government’s contracting database. “Miscellaneous Foreign Contractors” are also listed as performing janitorial services for the State Department in Saudi Arabia as well. Welty said he believes the companies are foreign, but was unable to reach the inspection team leader to verify his contentions.

Embassy officials “responsible for overseeing the contracts were unaware of any problems related to trafficking activities,” the recently released report says. What follows that sentence in the report is redacted.

The letter states that the Riyadh embassy inspection went farther than most other embassy inspections. The extra step included interviews with “locally employed staff about contractors’ behavior with respect to trafficking in persons.” This additional information is unmentioned the publicly released report.

Welty said he believes the redacted section “might have something to do with national security.” The redaction cites a Freedom of Information Act exemption related to “Internal Personnel Rules and Practices,” which includes matters that can “impede the effectiveness of an agency’s law enforcement activities,” according to a Justice Department website.

The report outlines the overall lack of protection for foreign workers.

“Prevailing practice in Saudi Arabia includes a number of elements (such as holding an employee’s passport) that can be considered coercion of the employee and the loss of his or her freedom of movement,” the report says. “Third country nationals performing most service-related functions have little protection, in an environment that affords them limited recourse.”

“In law and in practice, labor problems in Saudi Arabia are most egregious regarding the treatment of the large population of third country nationals, who have few effective protections in country. The labor law outlines penalties for certain abuses, including trafficking in persons, but the government rarely enforces fines or penalties on abusive employers.”

The U.S. embassy, the report said, “should develop and implement standard operating procedures for monitoring contracts’ and contractors’ compliance with anti-trafficking requirements.”

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