In March of 2004 four contract employees of Blackwater Security Consulting were sent out into the streets of Iraq to provide an escort to a food convoy. They lacked heavy armour, they were never briefed on the nature and parameters of the job, and there was no pre-mission reconaissance. Oh, they also lacked a street map. You will remember these four men: they were ambushed and shot by insurgents, their bodies were burned, and the charred remains were hung from a bridge across the Euphrates River in Fallujah.
We know that these contract employees were covered by workers comp (see Julie Ferguson's previous blog here.) But what about employer negligence? Is Blackwater accountable in any way for these deaths? We may never know. We read in the Gulf Times, that after years of legal wrangling, the case has been sent to arbitration, where the proceedings will remain confidential and the rulings will be binding.
Prior to working, all Blackwater contract employees sign a document releasing the company from "any liability whatsoever" even if it is the result of "negligence, gross negligence, omissions or failure to guard or warn against dangerous conditions." I hardly need add that such language in a stateside employment contract would be illegal and unenforceable. But in Iraq, birthplace of the middle east's new democracy, anything goes.
Lawyers for the four workers had hoped to invalidate the contract itself: the lawsuit alleged that Blackwater broke explicit terms of its contract by sending the men off without sufficient preparation and protection. Blackwater is lucky that Iraq is beyond the reach of OSHA, where employers must provide a workplace free from unusual risk of injury. As Borat would say: "Not!"
we have been blogging the plight of undocumented workers in this country: substandard working conditions; substandard pay; marginal benefits. Despite all these problems, they may have better employment protections than contractors in Iraq. We are sending U.S. citizens into harms way with virtually no employer accountability and no protection.
Lawyers view the judge's decision in this particular case as a victory for Blackwater. Even if the company has to pay for these deaths, their approach to employment - the blanket release of employer accountability for any and all of the dangers that employees face in Iraq - remains intact.
Put enough money on the table and people will sign anything. It's only in the agony of retrospection that the consequences of a simple signature are truly understood. Nearly one thousand private contractors have died in Iraq. I wonder how their parents, widows and children view in hindsight the hefty hourly wages available in that absurdly dangerous country. Perhaps the families have a newfound appreciation for the protections offered to all workers in America, where we at least theoretically hold employers accountable for the way they train and support their employees.