News & Commentary

October 28, 2022

Julia Deng

Julia Deng is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s News & Commentary, military contractors are accused of human trafficking, cargo ships go east to avoid labor union activity, and California fast-food industry players face complaints that they violated state election law.

Several news organizations have reported serious human trafficking allegations against U.S. military contractors and subcontractors operating bases around the world. Contractors across the Middle East and Afghanistan have long faced workers’ claims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), federal acquisition regulations against involuntary servitude, and other laws for trafficking, abuse, and retaliation. Despite internal investigations into labor abuses and years of complaints, the military agencies continue to do billions of dollars’ worth of business with the companies against which allegations have been made. The Government Accountability Office has described the Defense Department’s approach to trafficking as confused, apathetic, and multiple sources have said that they have a problem with transparency.

One Department of Defense contractor, called Tamimi, delivers food to military installations. The $10 million contract is current, even though the company has faced criminal and civil allegations for years, and one director was convicted of wire fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering in U.S. federal court. Army and Defense investigations surfaced accusations that Tamimi recruited men in Bangladesh, transported them to Kuwait, then paid them significantly less than promised. The workers faced 12-hour shifts, seven days per week, and poor working conditions. Despite Tamimi’s potential violations of the TVPA and Kuwaiti minimum wage law, their contract was renewed. Others have reported that Tamimi workers had their passports taken — a common allegation in the industry — that they lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and that they had marks on their body that appeared to be from physical abuse. Tamimi and other contractors have been accused of charging exorbitant recruiting fees that keep workers in debt, with some reporting that these fees can reach almost 40 times of workers’ monthly wages. Workers are also locked into these jobs by local requirements that they obtain “release papers” from employers before leaving, papers which contractors are alleged to routinely deny.

More cargo ships are preferring East Coast ports over Los Angeles, and one of the primary reasons appears to be industry fears of a longshoremen’s strike. In August this year, the Port of New York and New Jersey was the most highly-trafficked of U.S. ports for the very first time. New data has emerged that it kept the top spot in September. Meanwhile, all this week in San Francisco, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has been meeting with an employer group to negotiate things like safety issues, and resolve claims that one employer colluded with another union to circumvent a collective bargaining agreement. Other, non-unionized, workers in Southern California’s shipping economy, like the independent contractors who drive containers between ports, have lost work due to a reduced demand for their services.

On Thursday, California’s largest local union filed complaints against fast-food industry players with the secretary of state and attorney general’s office, alleging that they violated state election law by misrepresenting a ballot initiative to potential voters. The complaint is connected to a November 2024 state referendum seeking to repeal the Fast Recovery Act. The Act creates an industry council with the authority to raise the minimum wage for franchise restaurant workers as high as $22, and as soon as next year. The complaints allege that fast-food businesses and trade groups backed a “willfully misleading” signature-gathering process in order to qualify for the referendum, telling signatories that they were trying to raise the minimum wage, when in fact they were putting up for a vote the disestablishment of the industry council that would do it.

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