Can't work for them, can't sue them

U.S. women claiming assault by contractors in Iraq "find themselves in legal limbo."

Published February 13, 2008 5:23PM (EST)

It's bordering on cliché by now, dismayingly enough, to observe that women deployed to Iraq face (at least) "two kinds of assault," are "fighting on two fronts," or that some say the worst part of being at war was not being ambushed by insurgents. Indeed, as today's New York Times reports, "a number of women who have reported that they were sexually assaulted by co-workers while working as contractors in Iraq ... now find themselves in legal limbo, unable to seek justice or even significant compensation."

Women like -- as you may remember -- Jamie Leigh Jones, 23, a former employee of military contractor KBR who has been unable to get her charges of gang rape heard in court; women like Mary Beth Kineston, who was fired after complained about harassment and groping incidents. "I felt safer on the convoys with the Army than I ever did working for KBR," Kineston told the Times. "At least if you got in trouble on a convoy, you could radio the Army and they would come and help you out. But when I complained to KBR, they didn't do anything. I still have nightmares. They changed my life forever, and they got away with it."

Some such cases are perhaps inevitable, given the sheer number of contractors, who now outnumber U.S. military personnel. But the follow-up has been a mess; these cases have proved as tough for the U.S. to pursue as those involving the Blackwater ugliness. Why? Because "the military justice system does not apply to [contractors], and the reach of other American laws on contractors working in foreign war zones remains unclear five years after the United States invasion of Iraq," the Times explains. "KBR and other companies, meanwhile, have required Iraq-bound employees to agree to take personnel disputes to private arbitration rather than sue the companies in American courts."

Jones testified in Congress in December -- and yesterday -- in order to draw attention to such cases and urge lawmakers to change regulations governing private arbitration. Emboldened by Jones, more women have begun to step forward, talking about mysteriously disappearing complaints and about being given, for their grievances, an 800 number and a pat on the head.

Two women, including Kineston, did actually manage to prevail in arbitration, with Kineston winning a "modest" award; KBR says this means the system is working. Sure, in so far as the lady gets her money and the company can say it dealt. But arbitration? No judge, no jury, no public record: not exactly a deterrent; very Wall Street in the 1990s. You could say that KBR employees made their beds when they agreed to work there -- and be subject to its rules -- in the first place, but that doesn't mean those rules are just. As Jones told Congress yesterday: "Victims of crime perpetrated by employees of taxpayer-funded government contracts in Iraq deserve the same standard of treatment and protection governed by the same laws whether they are working in the U.S. or abroad."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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