The Cable

House to battle over funds to increase security at the U.N.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will get her first chance to fulfill her promise to cut U.S. funding from the United Nations tomorrow, when the House votes on a bill to take back $180 million already given to the U.N.

The money, part of what's called the U.N. Tax Equalization Fund, is supposed to go to U.S. citizens who work at the United Nations, to compensate for the taxes they pay on their U.N. salaries. U.S. citizens don't pay these taxes because their foreign coworkers there don't pay taxes back in their countries. Over the years, the United States has overpaid the fund by $180 million, and House Republicans want that money back. The problem is that the United Nations Capital Master Plan has already designated $100 million of that money for security improvements at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. The Obama administration has thrown its support behind using the funds for that purpose.

"This is absolutely critical. The New York Police Department requested that security improvements be made to the U.N. complex because of concerns about terrorism," Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday. Since part of the U.N. building actually hangs over FDR Drive, the NYPD is concerned about the possibility of car bombs.

"We have thousands of employees who work there. We have tourists and schoolchildren who visit these buildings. We need to make sure they are as safe as possible," she said.

Brimmer noted that the entire U.N. headquarters building is being rebuilt now, making this the ideal time to upgrade security there. The funds have already been allocated and the project is underway, so if the Ros-Lehtinen bill passes and the funds are rescinded, it would be difficult and more expensive to go back and put in the security improvements later, she said.

The remaining $80 million would go to future U.S. dues to the United Nations, reducing the amount of future appropriations, Brimmer said. "We all share the desire to be absolutely scrupulous with every dollar of taxpayer money," she said. However, she also argued that the United States has treaty obligations to pay its dues, as agreed. "We're an international leader and we have to act like it."

The bill was selected for a vote because it was featured on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's "YouCut" website, which allows people to vote online each week for what legislation that introduces spending cuts they want to see on the House floor and received the highest bote. Cantor's site says that the administration has not decided how to , but Brimmer said congressional staffers were briefed on the security improvements last December.

"It appears that the U.N. is still holding the U.S. funds because the Administration has not instructed the U.N. on how it wishes to dispose of them. By instructing the U.N. to return those funds to the U.S. we can generate savings for American taxpayers," the website stated.

Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) said in an interview with The Cable that's not true. King is opposed to the bill, will vote against it, and will do everything in his power to ensure that the bill does not get the two-thirds of votes it needs to pass under suspension of the rules.

"This would undermine security in New York City, it's wrong and it's indefensible," King said, adding that the push for increasing security at the U.N. has gone on for years and should not be scuttled now that it is actually happening.

King met with GOP leadership Tuesday afternoon to let them know his view. They told him that the funds should be appropriated through regular means. There could be a way to include the $100 million in the continuing resolution coming up next week, but Congress shouldn't take any chances, King said.

"We're talking about human life here. If someone is killed in an attack on the U.N., I don't think we will be able to go back and say, well, the money was in the wrong account," said King.

Supporters of the United Nations see the singling out of U.N. funds for cuts as placing a relatively small amount of savings above national security concerns.

"Both the State Department and the New York City Police have recognized the need to implement security upgrades to protect the U.N. and its workers from a terrorist attack and the funding must remain so that these improvements can move forward," Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy and public affairs for the UN Foundation, told The Cable. "The security of Americans and foreign officials working at the U.N. should not be compromised for the sake of political fodder."

Ros-Lehtinen will lead the floor debate on the bill. She will be opposed by committee ranking Democrat and former chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee Nita Lowey (R-NY).

"I strongly oppose this legislation, which will jeopardize critical security upgrades at United Nations headquarters in New York, put us back into arrears at the UN, and result in absolutely no savings to the American taxpayer," Berman told The Cable.

"Rescinding this funding would mean either killing necessary security enhancements or sticking New Yorkers with the full tab for protecting the world's diplomats," Lowey said in an interview. "Neither is acceptable."

The Cable

U.S. embassies in Arab world abusing foreign workers

Contractors working for U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world have been abusing foreign workers through unsanitary living conditions, coercive hiring practices, and a host of other indignities, according to a new State Department report released Monday.

The State Department's Office of the Inspector General looked into six contracts at the U.S. embassies in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and at two consulates general in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. It found what it referred to as indicators of coercion (confiscation of documents at the work destination), indicators of exploitation (bad living conditions and payment issues), and indicators of abuse of vulnerability (absence of language education and general abuse of a lack of information).

The six contracts examined -- for the employment of janitors, gardeners, and guards at these diplomatic posts -- totaled about $18 million.

"More than 70 percent of foreign contract workers live in overcrowded, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.," the report stated. "In Riyadh, the embassy's 19 gardeners share a dilapidated apartment building with numerous fire and safety hazards."

Janitors in Abu Dhabi get an average of 24 square feet of living space. (By way of comparison, federal prisoners in the U.S. typically get between 45 and 60 square feet.) In Abu Dhabi, 8 to 10 workers bunk in a 12 by 18-foot room; there are only 15 to 20 bathrooms in a camp there that houses over 450 people. According to the report, the contractor in charge of those workers led the OIG investigators on a wild goose chase, first taking them to a building that was not actually where the workers lived.

What's more, workers of different nationalities often received different wages for doing the same jobs. For example, a Bangladeshi janitor at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh gets paid $4.44 a day. A worker of Indian origin doing the same job makes double, $8.89 a day, the report found. At the U.A.E. embassy, most guards make $22.71 a day, equal to the minimum wage. But the Ethiopian guards there make only $13.62 per day, well below the legal minimum.

Workers at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait weren't aware they are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year, leading one employee to work eight straight years without taking any time off whatsoever.

The report said there was no "severe" abuse, defined as conduct that clearly violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which would include sex trafficking or illicit activities related to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. But since there's no clear monitoring system for trafficking violations, the OIG ultimately couldn't say if trafficking violations were occurring.

Seventy-seven percent of workers interviewed said they had to pay a recruitment fee to get their jobs at the embassies and over 50 percent of those said their fee was greater than six months salary. Every contractor examined by the OIG confiscated the passports of their workers. Inappropriate garnishing of workers' wages was rampant, and most workers were forced to seek extra, often-illegal second jobs to supplement their salaries.

The OIG set forth seven recommendations for better protecting contract workers. These include the suggestion that embassies discuss local labor laws with contractors, monitor compliance and even require certification of contractors, and require that contractors explain labor laws to their workers. It also recommended that the State Department's Bureau of Administration should increase its training on the issue.

Most of the embassies investigated agreed with the OIG's report, but the Bureau of Administration's Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) disagreed with all seven of the OIG's recommendations. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh provided no comments on the report whatsoever.

The OIG called A/OPE's explanations for why it disagreed with the recommendations "unclear and unresponsive to the intent of the recommendations."