You may have heard about Jamie Leigh Jones, the woman was drugged and raped by a group of male coworkers from Halliburton/KBR while she was in Iraq. Jones was then held in a shipping container and threatened with termination if she sought medical attention. It's a horrible, gut-wrenching story that makes you want to keep your daughters inside, safe from the big bad world, forever and evermore. (No daughters here, but we'd understand the temptation in spite of our deep respect for their freedom of movement and individuality.)
What you may not have heard is that the men who attacked Jones will probably never be prosecuted for their actions. According to legal analyst Sunny Hostin in an interview on CNN, Jones had to waive her right to access the court system for work-related matters as a condition of her employment:
"She signed an employment contract and there is a mandatory arbitration clause in that contract," CNN legal analyst told Kiran Chetry on CNN's American Morning Tuesday. "It says if there's any dispute arising out of your employment or related to your employment, that dispute doesn't go before a jury, doesn't go before trial judge, goes before an arbitrator."
"The bottom line is I am surprised that the Justice Department and that the prosecutors have not investigated this to its completion and brought charges and I have to say I think that is coming," Hostin said. "I think after all the press that we've seen, that is going to come, but this is a civil action, an action that she is bringing and typically when you bring a civil action, you can bring it according to The constitution or according to your rights you can bring it in a court of law. She signed that right away with her employment contract and people do it all the time."
"You're talking money, not prison time for the accused if they are found guilty," Chetry added.
What is an arbitration, exactly? According to Public Citizen, "Arbitration was conceived as an informal, expedited process for resolving routine disputes between businesses. But when it is imposed on a weaker party, such as a consumer, arbitration can be used to defeat valid claims." Give Me Back My Rights! defines arbitration as "an alternative method of resolving disputes in which two parties present their individual sides of a complaint to an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators. The arbitrator, who is supposed to be neutral, then weighs the facts and arguments of both parties and decides the dispute. Arbitration may be voluntary or mandatory." That last bit is the clincher, however: Too many arbitrations are mandatory these days, meaning that more and more employees are forced into signing away their right to make decisions about how best to counter abuse or discrimination, or waiving their ability to do so entirely. A number of our partner organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have had a lot to say about the dangers of mandatory arbitration clauses.
Back to the case at hand, however, there are so many things wrong with the scenario Jones is in. First, it's evident that our society needs to do a better job protecting the rights and the choices of women. That goes without saying, but apparently it's not being said enough given our country's statistics on sexual assault. Second, for large multinational corporations to protect their profit margins by demanding that their dedicated employees sign away their rights to a fair jury trial is utterly disrespectful of all of our rights as workers. Fortunately (as fortunate as any outcome can be) for Jones, her case is high-profile and horrendous enough that a Congressional committee has elected to investigate the matter. MoveOn has even taken up her cause. From the Campaign's perspective, though, Jones' inability to pursue criminal charges is yet another big red flag in the rollback of our civil rights. If we can't depend on the court system to remedy injustices, to reprimand those who have hurt us, where else can we turn? We look forward to a future in which the international human rights tribunals have greater capacity to weigh in on deeply troubling US matters, but we're not there yet -- we're as much the Rogue States of America as ever. And in the meantime, Jamie Leigh Jones is just one of many Americans suffering the double whammy of being victimized and having little or no legal recourse.