Oct. 7, 2009 — -- Jamie Leigh Jones was a 20-year-old young woman working her fourth day on the job in Baghdad for contractor Halliburton/KBR in 2005, when she says she was drugged and gang-raped by seven U.S contractors and held captive by two KBR guards in a shipping container. But more than four years after the alleged crimes occurred, Jones is still waiting for her day in court because when she signed her employment contract, she lost her rights to a jury trial and, instead, was forced into having her claims decided through secret, binding arbitration.
Today, the Senate listened to her story before approving an amendment by a vote of 68-30 that would prohibit "the Defense Department from contracting with companies that require employees to resolve sexual assault allegations and other claims through arbitration."
"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," Jones, who told her story to ABC News' Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross in an award-winning 20/20 story, testified at the Senate committee meeting on the issue. "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."
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) estimated that at least 30 million workers have unknowingly signed employment contracts and waived their constitutional rights to have their civil rights claims resolved by a jury. 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 told the committee that the system of forcing employees to sign employee contracts that contain clauses for mandatory, confidential and binding arbitration – before any potential disputes even arise - keeps evidence from ever coming to public light and enables large corporations like Halliburton to adopt arbitration as a venue to wipe the record clean of disputes.
Senate Judiciary Committee
She said the proceedings do not need to be secret and that they should be heard in an open court – where they'll become public record. "If women before me," she said, "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."
The Senate Judiciary Committee meeting was to examine the effects of a recent Supreme Court decision -- Circuit City v. Adams. In 2001 in Circuit City, the Supreme Court expanded the reach of employees who are required to address disputes through arbitration rather than in court.
Leahy said the Court's decision in Circuit City undermines the effective enforcement of civil rights laws, and by extending the force of the arbitration act, the Court made employment contract arbitration provisions enforceable, thus enabling employers to strip employees of their civil rights by including arbitration clauses in employment contracts.
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."
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who sponsored the amendment, clashed repeatedly with de Bernardo, questioning how arbitration could possibly help someone in Jones' situation.
"This took place in Iraq, at that time she had no recourse, sir!" Franken roared. "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?"
The Senate is expected to vote later on the larger defense bill, to which Franken's sponsored amendment is attached.
Jones recalls standing outside her barracks in the Green Zone with several Halliburton firefighters when one male offered her a drink, saying she shouldn't worry because he had "saved all his ruffies for Dubai."
"I naively took the drink. I remember nothing after taking a couple of sips," Jones testified today. "When I awoke in my room the next morning, I was naked, I was sore, I was bruised and I was bleeding. I was groggy and confused and didn't know why."
Jones, suspecting she had been raped, went to the bathroom to assess her injuries. When she returned, she says she found one of her attackers still there, lying naked in her bed. After reporting the incident to a KBR operations coordinator, Jones was taken to a Combat Army Support Hospital, where she says a rape kit revealed she had been raped vaginally and anally by multiple perpetrators.
Jones says she was then locked in a shipping container with two armed guards stationed outside and not permitted to leave or contact anyone. Eventually she convinced a guard to let her use his cell phone. She called her father, who contacted Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), who then dispatched State Department officials to ensure her release and return to the U.S.
But she says her suffering was far from over.
Last month the Fifth Circuit ruled that four of Jones's claims against Halliburton related to the alleged rape were not covered by the clause in her employment contract. However, her claims of discrimination under Title VII are still being forced into an arbitration proceeding.
"It's an injustice for me, for all future daughters, sisters, wives who don't know. It's a big injustice," Jones says. "Four years to fight to get in court is not a day in court."
Megan Chuchmach contributed to this report.