A recently unsealed lawsuit against Mantech, a large government contractor, shows the potential of the False Claims Act to enforce employment protections designed to prevent modern-day indentured servitude.
The case alleges that Mantech confiscated the passports of US mechanics and technicians it hired to work in Kuwait, essentially trapping them in their jobs, and failed to pay them overtime for up to 90-hour work weeks in unsafe, smoke-filled environments.
The “qui tam” (whistleblower lawsuit) was filed by five mechanics who were employed by Mantech in Kuwait.
Mantech hired workers to repair vehicles used by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that are designed to be resistant to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The employees sent to Kuwait to work had only tourist visas – a violation of local immigration laws that require non-citizens to obtain a different visa for employment.
When the Mantech employees arrived in Kuwait, the lawsuit alleges, Mantech confiscated their passports. The company only returned the passports several months later when it sent its workers to the airport to travel to Bahrain when their tourist visas had expired, so they could return to Kuwait and obtain new tourist visas. Mantech then re-confiscated the passports upon the workers’ return, which was often the same day they had left on the “visa run.”
Federal law prohibits confiscation of passports and other identification documents to maintain, prevent or restrict a person’s labor of services. The complaint alleges that the contract Mantech entered with the US Army incorporated that statutory prohibition and required the company to hold onto passports “for the shortest period of time reasonable for administrative purposes.”
Because they did not have their passports, the whistleblower lawsuit says, the workers could not apply for visas to work lawfully in Kuwait. At the same time, the contracts they had signed with Mantech required them to work for the company for at least two years. If the workers left before the two-year minimum, they would be required to reimburse Mantech all costs related to sponsoring them for employment, which could be over $15,000. Therefore, the lawsuit alleges, workers felt compelled to continue working for Mantech.
The complaint alleges that the air in the repair shops was filled with smoke from welding, ground paint and metal from sanding, engine exhaust and gas fumes. Despite those conditions, the lawsuit asserts, Mantech declined its workers’ requests to run ventilation fans or provide them with respirators. The complaint also says that when one worker complained about the lack of protective equipment, the company threatened to fire him.
In addition, according to the complaint, the company forced its workers to underreport the hours they spent repairing US vehicles and instead classify those hours as time spent on administrative tasks. This led the government to believe that work was done more efficiently than it actually was and concealed the alleged fact that many of Mantech’s employees were unqualified for their positions, and therefore spent more time on repairs than qualified employees would have.
The contract prohibited Mantech from confiscating passports and required it to comply with local immigration laws and US anti-human trafficking laws. Had the government known about the way Mantech was treating its employees in Kuwait, the lawsuit alleges, the government would have rescinded its contract with Mantech.
The lawsuit appears to be one of the first attempts – if not the first – to use the False Claims Act as a vehicle to enforce US laws designed to prevent government contractors and others from using forced labor.
The False Claims Act allows private citizens to sue companies that are making false claims to the government for payment by filing a “qui tam” (whistleblower) lawsuit. The whistleblowers have legal protection from job retaliation under the law and are entitled to a reward based on the amount of money the government recovers as a result of the qui tam case.
The case is United States ex rel. Hawkins v. Mantech International Corp., No. 15-2105 (D.D.C.)