Monday, October 12, 2009

Clause prohibiting defense contractors from arbitration in criminal cases is step towards justice for rape victim

A woman victimized while serving as a Iraq contractor testified before Congress last week, stating that arbitration in her rape case involving overseas contractors denies rape and other crime victims justice.

Jamie Lee Jones, then 19, was drugged and raped by seven other contractors and two KBR guards on her fourth day on the job as a Halliburton employee. Because her employment contract said that all disputes must come through binding arbitration instead of through courts, Jones is still waiting for her day in court.

"I didn't even know that I had signed such a clause, but even if I had known, I would never have guessed that it would prevent me from bringing my claims to court after being brutally sexually harassed and assaulted. I had no idea that the clause was part of the contract, what the clause actually meant, or that I would eventually end up in this horrible situation."

That day may come soon, since Senator Al Franken (D-MN), sponsored an amendment which passed Wednesday, October 7, 68 to 30 prohibiting "the Defense Department from contracting with companies that require employees to resolve sexual assault allegations and other claims through arbitration."

According to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, as many as 30 million employees are under such contracts, which disallow trials by jury in civil - or criminal cases.

An arbitration act passed by Congress, Leahy said, was meant to "provide sophisticated businesses an alternative venue to resolve their disputes" but instead has "become a hammer for corporations to use against their employees."

"There is no rule of law in arbitration," Leahy said. "There are no juries or independent judges in the arbitrations industry. There is no appellate review. There is no transparency. And…[for] Jamie Leigh Jones there is no justice."

JOnes said that "If women before me. if they were able to go before a judge and jury, that would have been public record, and I would have known before I went to Iraq what I was getting into."

Mark de Bernardo, the executive director of the Council for Employment Law Equity defended the use of arbitration as "decisively in the employees' best interests," and as an inexpensive alternative to jury trials.

"[Alternative Dispute Resolution] is an effective tool for both management and employees," de Bernardo said. "The opponents of arbitration have simply not demonstrated that the drastic, sweeping changes they seek to enact are necessary and/or appropriate. To the contrary, for the average employee, the elimination of arbitration will do more harm than good."

Franken clashed with De Bernardo repeatedly, stating that "This took place in Iraq, at that time she had no recourse, sir! She has not had her day in court, she has litigated for four years to have her day in court. She was drugged, she was raped, and she had to have reconstructive surgery. If that's a better workplace, what was the workplace like before?"

This clause will become law when and if the larger defense spending bill is passed by Congress.

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