A global workforce
THE Defense Base Act was not designed for the complexities of the global contractor workforce now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Citizens of at least 45 countries are working under U.S. contracts in the two nations. Yet Labor Department notices are printed in English and Arabic, but not Tagalog, Hindi or the many other languages spoken by foreign workers.
Overseas companies often ignore orders from Labor Department administrative law judges to appear in court or pay benefits.
Contracts for support services often involve layers of subcontractors. A Sri Lankan janitor might work for an Indian labor broker hired by a Middle Eastern subcontractor for a U.S. company. The chain is so complex that foreign workers can have trouble proving they were employed on behalf of the U.S. war effort.
In 2004, a dozen Nepalese were killed in western Iraq by insurgents. They had been on their way to work at a U.S. base. Daoud & Partners Co., a Jordanian logistics firm, held a contract. The company denied employing the men, foreclosing death benefits for their survivors.
After news reports about the case, attorneys from the Washington law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll volunteered to represent relatives of the slain Nepalese.
Atty. Matthew Handley traveled to Nepal to take witness statements and discovered, by chance, a copy of an employment contract that showed the men worked for Daoud.
In 2008, four years after the killings, a Labor Department judge ruled that Daoud and its insurance provider, CNA, were obliged to pay death benefits. That June, CNA began paying compensation, ranging from $35,000 for dependent parents to $175,000 for young widows of the dead workers.
Daoud did not respond to requests for comment.
“I couldn’t imagine anyone without counsel, never mind somebody from Nepal, trying to navigate through this process,” Handley said. “When it comes to third-country nationals, it becomes a black hole. You’re lucky if you’re able to get payments.”
EVEN when foreigners know their rights, the system can be daunting.
Daniel Brink, a South African, was working as a security guard in Iraq when his SUV was hit by a string of roadside bombs in December 2005.
Brink, a former police officer, lost his right leg and most of his fingers. He was flown to London, where surgeons used some of his toes to replace some of his lost fingers.
CNA, the insurance carrier for Brink’s employer, paid for that treatment. But when he returned to Johannesburg, South Africa, disputes arose over the cost of follow-up surgeries, psychological counseling, an electric wheelchair and related renovations to Brink’s house. CNA took months to pay for the surgeries and rejected the other bills, Brink said. His credit rating plunged, his wheelchair was repossessed, and he lost his home to foreclosure.
In May 2007, Brink flew to Chicago, believing he had an appointment to meet with his CNA claims adjuster. When he arrived, Brink said, he was told nobody would meet with him. Security guards escorted him out of CNA headquarters.
Two years later, Brink is pressing his claim in the Labor Department’s dispute-resolution system. He said his outstanding medical bills total about $150,000.
CNA said that it “does not have any direct contact with workers,” but otherwise declined to comment, saying that individual cases are confidential.
Brink, 39, said scores of South Africans who worked in Iraq are in similar situations. He is now in law school and hopes to represent injured contract workers from his country someday.
“It’s not that I want something out of the ordinary,” Brink said. “I just want what I’m entitled to, nothing more, nothing less.”#