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Obama Signs Human Trafficking Order for Federal Contractors

President Barack Obama today signed an executive order aimed at preventing federal contractors from engaging in what he called “modern slavery.”

The order requires changes to government regulations that would prohibit contractors and subcontractors from using misleading recruitment practices, charging employees recruitment fees and destroying or confiscating workers’ passports, according to a White House fact sheet.

Companies with contracts abroad valued at more than $500,000 must set up a process for employees to report trafficking violations “without fear of retaliation” and must certify that they haven’t participated in trafficking, according to the White House document.

Human trafficking “must be called by its true name, modern slavery,” Obama said today during an address to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. He said his message to oppressed people around the world is: “We see you, we hear you, we insist on your dignity.”

The U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan panel established to look into contracting waste during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, uncovered evidence of trafficking and exploitation of workers during trips to war zones, it said in a report to Congress last year.

False Promises

Foreigners were lured with promises of work in Kuwait at good wages and upon arrival were routed to Afghanistan and paid wages lower than promised, the commission found. Contractors also withheld pay from workers until their contract was completed, preventing them from returning home.

“Existing prohibitions on such trafficking have failed to suppress it,” according to the commission. “Labor brokers or subcontractors have an incentive to lure third-country nationals into coming to work for U.S. contractors, only to be mistreated or exploited.”

Members of the Professional Services Council, a trade group that represents contractors, “stand with the administration in its efforts to ensure American tax dollars are used as intended and do not flow to individuals or organizations that participate in the tragic practice of human trafficking,” Stan Soloway, chief executive officer of the Arlington, Virginia-based organization, said in a statement. “Fortunately, such cases are exceedingly rare.”

Republican Criticism

A Republican lawmaker who supported legislation targeting human trafficking by federal contractors criticized Obama’s order.

Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said while the executive order “borrows many components from Congress’ legislative effort, it does not include the most important part: expanding the criminal code to encompass foreign labor bondage for work performed outside the U.S. and cracking down on grants and grantees as well as just contractors.”

“If he’s going to find time to go before the cameras and the international community to announce a half-measure policy, President Obama owes it to victims of trafficking to commit himself to personally engaging in the legislative effort to enact actual changes to federal criminal statutes,” Issa said in a statement.

The House passed legislation targeting human trafficking as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. Similar legislation hasn’t passed the Senate.

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