Canadian Government, Red Cross Hush Up Slave-Labor Allegations

Last week, whistle-blower and former Canadian Red Cross employee Virgil Grandfield came forward to say that construction projects in Indonesia funded by Canadian taxpayers and contracted out by the Canadian Red Cross were using “slave labor,” and perhaps hundreds of workers were being denied payment. The projects in question were part of a tsunami relief and construction effort in the Aceh region of the country. Now, as it turns out, both the Canadian government and the Canadian Red Cross have known for two years about the allegations, but have tried to keep them quiet.

According to reports, after the 2004 tsunami which destroyed large areas of Indonesia, $66 million of Canadian taxpayer money was allocated to support rebuilding efforts there. The money was contracted to the Canadian Red Cross (CRC), who then sub-contracted to smaller organizations, some of whom subcontracted even further. And someone, somewhere along that chain decided to keep all that money instead of using it to pay workers. So he trafficked in men and women for the task and refused to pay some workers.

During the course of the project, some pretty serious allegations began to reach the CRC — its contractors were mistreating workers, they were forcing them to work without pay, and they had subjected workers to poor conditions, including leaky roofs, lack of clean water, and no access to bathing facilities. And what did the CRC do? They hired an accounting firm to look into the matter and develop a report. Yes, an investigation by an accountant is better than no investigation at all, but is that really the most proactive response to allegations that taxpayer dollars are being used to fund slavery? Then again, when it happened in the U.S., we didn’t even get accountants.

The report, however, hasn’t seen the light of day. Even the government, who holds the purse strings, has only seen an executive summary of the findings. And the investigation never went beyond that initial look. Furthermore, Grandfiled says there are sill hundred of Indonesian workers waiting for a payday that might never come. The CRC has been accused of doing the bare minimum for the sake of appearances, and treating the allegations as a public relations blip as opposed to a human rights violation. The Canadian government has been accused of poor oversight and being willing to sweep slavery under the rug. Neither group seems to be leaping forward to correct this injustice with overwhelming enthusiasm.

If I was a Canadian citizen, I’d be demanding that the government and their contractors track down the workers who were used on the construction job and give them the money they are owed. Hiring accountants to write a report that sits on your desk isn’t enough. This isn’t just about your reputation, or even about Canada’s money. It’s about the exploitation of workers who were working on a project intended to rebuild their community. Making sure those workers get paid will go a long way toward helping Indonesia recover from the tsunami. Allowing slavery to be perpetrated in your name and then hushing it up, unsurprisingly, won’t help at all.

Photo credit: Ian Mutto



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