Protect workers, not businesses
On July 28, 2005, while working in Iraq for KBR, a defense contractor and then-subsidiary of Halliburton, Jamie Leigh Jones was drugged and gang raped by several of her co-workers. One of her rapists subsequently confessed his involvement in the assault to Jones, but because she was unconscious throughout the ordeal, her other perpetrators have never been identified. As alleged in the lawsuit filed by her attorneys, when Jones "awoke the next morning still affected by the drug, she found her body naked and severely bruised, with lacerations to her vagina and anus, blood running down her leg, her breast implants ruptured and her pectoral muscles torn – which would later require reconstructive surgery." Under the orders of her employer, Jones was then imprisoned in a shipping container by armed guards and told that her employment with KBR would be terminated if she left Iraq to seek medical treatment. She was held captive for approximately one day until she gained access to a mobile phone, which she used to call her father, Tom Jones. Mr. Jones contacted Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who notified the State Department of the situation. Agents from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were then sent to remove Ms. Jones from the company's custody.
Upon her return to the United States, Jones was devastated to discover that the conditions of her employment with KBR prohibited her from filing a civil lawsuit against the company, as her contract contained an arbitration clause designed to render her ineligible to seek damages in open court, but, rather, only through private arbitration. Even worse, according to an article published by The Guardian last week, the rape kit that was used by a U.S. Army physician to gather evidence from Jones and later submitted to corporate officials at KBR was found to be missing several "crucial photographs and notes" when it was ultimately presented to State Department investigators two years later. Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor in February of 2008, Jones stated: "When I decided to pursue a civil suit, I was informed that … my 13-page employment contract … included an arbitration clause … I had no idea what an arbitration [clause] was other than a tiny paragraph included in the lengthy document that mandated that I could not get justice from the civil court system. I learned that I had signed away my right to a trial by jury. I thought this right was guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution … The forced arbitration clause … prove[s] to protect … criminals." So much for liberty and justice for all.
Finally, on Sept. 15, more than four years after her assault, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that Jones' federal lawsuit against KBR and Halliburton could be tried in open court. To synopsize, after being sexually assaulted and dehumanized under the watch of her former employer, Jones was made to wade through a seemingly endless bureaucratic hellscape merely in order to be granted a chance to seek compensation for her unimaginable tribulations. Further, while her ordeal indeed is undeniably horrific in its own right, Jones' experiences are not all too dissimilar from those of many other women who have worked as contractors in Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere. As published by The New York Times, many women who worked "as contractors in Iraq say that while on the job they encountered sexual discrimination and harassment, which sometimes veered dangerously to sexual assaults and even rapes … and that male supervisors often tried to force female employees to grant sexual favors in exchange for promotions or other benefits."
On Oct. 1, in an attempt to end the indifference with which the plight of female contractors has been met by their employers, first-term senator Al Franken (D-MN) introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act for 2010, in order to "prohibit the use of funds for any Federal contract with ... [any company which] requires that employees or independent contractors sign mandatory arbitration clauses regarding certain claims." Astoundingly, 30 Republican senators (fully 75 percent of the GOP's membership in the Senate) voted against the amendment. Politico.com reports that "most Republicans opposed the amendment because it went against the wishes of the Defense Department, and argued it gave Congress too much influence in altering defense contracts … [Republicans also] point out that the amendment was opposed by a host of business interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and applies to a wide range of companies, including IBM and Boeing." Apparently, these senators feel that international business conglomerates need legal protection from their employees. In reality, the opposite is true. As for Franken's amendment giving congress "too much influence to alter … contracts," many of the senators who voted against it wholeheartedly supported terminating ACORN's partnership in the 2010 census. Jon Stewart commented on this blatant hypocrisy more aptly than perhaps anyone else: "You don't want to waste taxpayer money on someone who advises fake prostitutes how to make imaginary crimes. You want to give it to Halliburton, because they're committing real gang rape. You cut out the middleman! And they say government doesn't work."
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column, "Zeitgeist," runs on alternate Wednesdays. He is also a contributing writer for the Johnsonville Press.