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An American Air Force colonel, who helped implement reforms aimed at eliminating trafficking of Asian labourers on to United States bases in Iraq, has testified that private contractors have been seizing workers’ passports as a standard practice.

He also said they only complied with military orders to return the workers’ documents because their business was threatened.

About 35,000 foreign workers, mostly from impoverished areas of Asia, work on U.S. bases for more than 200 subcontractors hired by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. The Houston-based company is carrying out an unprecedented, multi-billion-dollar privatization of military-support operations in Iraq.

Earlier this year, a U.S. military investigation, prompted by scathing media reports about worker trafficking on U.S. bases, led to reforms, including an order to return workers’ passports.

The colonel testified that the contractors were “not changing because they had an epiphany… They’re changing because they know they’re going to be held accountable.” He explained that the contractors get the message and comply once they’re threatened under U.S. laws designed to cut off taxpayer-financed contracts linked to human trafficking.

Contractors have claimed that by seizing the workers’ passports, they were trying to keep them from seeking different employers.