Foreign Worker Abuse Rampant at U.S. Embassies

The United States already has a major image problem in the Arab world, and a new State Department report on the abuse of foreign workers at U.S. embassies in the region is sure to make it worse.

Via Foreign Policy's The Cable blog we looked at the report, which was released on Monday, and the findings in it are nothing short of disgusting. A picture of our embassies and consulates in several Gulf countries — such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait — emerges wherein the employment of foreign workers there looks similar to that of the Gulf's gaudiest cities that were built on the backs of indentured laborers. It also seems we're getting dangerously close to what the State Department terms "trafficking in persons." From the report [pdf]:

OIG found several contractor practices that increase the risk of TIP. These practices include coercion at recruitment and destination (through debt bondage and confiscation of documents), exploitative conditions of work (including payment and wage issues and bad living conditions), and abuse of vulnerability (including abuse of lack of education and lack of information).

In other words, the U.S. government is using taxpayer money to pay contractors who dabble in what some would consider the modern day slave trade. Here are some of the details:

More than 70 percent of workers interviewed reported they live in overcrowded, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions. Workers' housing facilities range from shared apartment buildings with common areas to labor camps in converted commercial lots.

Yes, labor camps. Embassies are supposed to act as diplomatic outposts in foreign countries, and to project an image of the United States as a free, democratic society. So much for all that. And what's worse than living in squalor? Living in squalor and paying up to a year's salary just for the right to mow the lawn at an American embassy:

Of the 77 percent of interviewed workers who stated they obtained their jobs by paying a recruitment agency in their country of origin, nearly 50 percent of workers said they paid fees totaling more than 6 months' salary in the receiving country, and 27 percent reported paying fees of more than 1 year's salary.

OIG found that every contractor reviewed in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. confiscated workers' passports.

The report found that, among other things, "language issues" have kept the State Department from finding out about these abuses sooner. Reports of widespread abuse like this, besides being completely repulsive and shameful, only negate the hard work of many of our foreign service officers and make American efforts at outreach in the region look totally hollow. We should probably fix that right now.

[The Cable; image via Getty]