KBR, a company controlled by defense contractor Halliburton, has become well-known over the past few weeks. The reputation it has gained is not a positive one, though. On July 28, 2005, one of their employees by the name of Jamie Leigh Jones was drugged and gang raped while on assignment in Iraq.
Jones began working for KBR as an administrative assistant in Iraq after signing a contract, unaware of the fine print that required her to arbitrate any future dispute with the company. (Arbitration is a form of resolution outside the court of law that does not bring the case to the attention of the public.) KBR housed her with 400 other men and just a few women. During this time she told KBR two times that she was being sexually harassed, but to no avail. Four days later, she was raped and later had to have reconstructive surgery because of the incident.
Jones and an Army physician gathered evidence of the crime in a rape kit (containing items such as blood samples, clothing, photos, etc.) After gathering the evidence in the kit, it was given to KBR security forces and mysteriously disappeared. Following the incident, she was confined to a container by KBR and Jones has testified she was sometimes denied food, drink, and medical treatment during this period. She was eventually allowed to use a phone and call her father; He immediately got in touch with Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, who acted promptly and responsibly. Jones was soon removed from KBR’s control. It is undeniable that KBR had extensive knowledge of and was heavily involved in the incident.
Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) has since presented an amendment to Congress to prevent corporations from using arbitration in such cases of assault and battery, infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and negligent hiring, retention and supervision. These requirements are consistent with the precedet set by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court in Jones’ case.
Yet there have been some concerns expressed regarding this amendment. For example, some have worried about vague language in the bill. That’s a legitimate concern since vague wording can lead to unforeseen problems in the future — but that’s not what the Republican senators were arguing in their debate. These opposing senators argued instead that the government “should not be writing or rewriting private contracts” and that “we should probably be looking for ways to utilize mediation or arbitration more in these kind of disputes.” Others argued that the amendment was nothing more than a political grudge against Halliburton. I don’t believe the opposing senators are okay with Jones’ rape, but who are they representing here? It’s not the rape victim, that’s for sure.
Other critics argue that since the companies’ contract clauses allow rape victims to sue the rapists themselves rather than the companies, there was no need for the amendment. If that were the case, then Jamie Leigh Jones would not have had to wait four years to get her day in court. Jones herself stated in a hearing, “I have been fighting arbitration for four years. I have been waiting my day in front of a trial by jury for four years.” It’s hard to believe there’s no need for Franken’s amendment, considering KBR has since appealed the case in hopes that a higher court will rule differently after the Fifth Circuit’s original ruling showed clear evidence that KBR was deeply involved in the sexual assault, along with the individuals.
Jones’ case is not an isolated one. Since the ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court in Texas and the amendment was presented to Congress, other women have come forth with their own similarly horrifying experiences, explaining they were not able to get justice due to arbitration clauses. The ruling has already set precedence for other victims to be able to come forward and receive justice.
The amendment passed with 58 senators in favor and 30 (all Republican) against, but I have yet to hear a sound argument as to why this amendment should have been voted down. It seems to me that the majority of those in opposition are more concerned with loyalty to a particular party or obstructing the legislative initiatives of their political opponents than with integrity or justice.
Randall Serr is a liberal political columnist for Rhombus. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the University of Utah.
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