By Donald H. Harrison
San Diego (special) -- The Jewish community can be proud of a woman named Amy Katz, who is championing human dignity in a battle against the Halliburton Corporation which, up to recently, had Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney as its chairman and chief executive officer.
Halliburton is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that provides engineering and other services for major clients all over the world, whether they be oil companies, foreign governments or, in the case in which Katz has been concerned, America's overseas military forces.
You may have heard of the case in which Katz is involved, even if you are not familiar with her name. While working for Brown & Root Services, a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation, she discovered that the company is forcing "host country nationals" in Kosovo to use different bathrooms than American "expatriates" who are serving there. Later, she learned the same practice is followed by the company in Albania.
Brown & Root Services builds housing units, runs cafeterias, and laundries and takes care of many of the day-to-day living needs for U.S. military forces assigned as peace keepers to this embattled region of Eastern Europe. Its employs thousands of people in Eastern Europe.
What an irony! Americans who were sent into the region to prevent ethnic violence and genocide are themselves involved in the degrading practice of telling Kosovars that they are not worthy enough to use the same bathrooms as their so-called American friends. There are even security guards posted outside the restroom facilities to make sure that Kosovars are kept from them.
According to a Halliburton spokeswoman, Dick Cheney was far too busy in Texas running the far-flung Halliburton Corporation to be aware of his company's restroom policies in Kosovo and neighboring Albania. Furthermore, according to a speech made recently by Cheney, the press has become far too interested in "trivial" issues rather than in the great issues of the day.
To suggest that treating people like second-class citizens in their own country is "trivial" is to suggest that the Jim Crow laws that used to designate which bathrooms were for "whites" and which bathrooms were for "coloreds" also were trivial. Or that requiring people to use separate water fountains was trivial. Or to insist that the races be kept segregated was trivial. Or that when the nazis began the Holocaust by adopting a series of degrading laws against Jews, that too was trivial.
It's too bad that Dick Cheney wasn't aware of the policy while he was the company's chief executive officer. Maybe he would have stopped it. But how did such a corporate culture flourish under his leadership? And what does this say about the skills Cheney has for dealing with people of other cultures should he become the man whose office is the proverial heartbeat away from the presidency?
Brown & Root Services has said that it isn't attempting to degrade their workers, but rather simply wants to recognize that there are different cultural practices when it comes to the use of restrooms.
What does that mean? It means that many Kosovars and Albanians are used to squatting over a hole in a floor board, rather than sitting on a toilet seat. Apparently some Kosovars and Albanians, unfamiliar with toilet seats, had tried to precariously balance themselves upon them in a squatting position. American workers complained the bathrooms often were in a mess.
How has Brown & Root Services handled the problem? It created two sets of bathrooms using toilets with seats, but prohibited the Kosovars and Albanians--called 'HCN's' in bureaucratese for 'Host Country Nationals'-- from using those bathrooms designated for Americans and other expatriates. Security guards actually are paid to prevent HCN's and 'expatriates' from using each other's bathrooms.
There are of course less offensive solutions to this problem. The company might have erected bathrooms offering a choice of facilities -- some designed for sitting, some designed for squatting, and simply allowed people to use the ones with which they were most comfortable. Or, they could have created materials to teach people about each other's bathroom etiquette.
Katz told me the segregated toilets are part of an overall pattern at the Brown and Root Services subsidiary in which host country nationals of both genders are verbally abused and culturally bullied. She reports that HCN's are not permitted to attend parties for Americans. And, she contends that women--whether from the host country or from America- are accepted only when they treat the men around them either as fathers or as lovers.
With a bachelor's degree and graduate degree in communications from Southern Illinois University, Katz had been hired in 1998 to serve as a human relations officer for Brown & Root Services. After touring the company's facilities in Hungary and neighboring countries, she said, she wrote a 20-page report outlining areas where she believed work in human relations was needed.
She said although the report followed guidelines set down by Halliburton's home office in Texas, it infuriated her superiors who said there was no time for such an ambitious program. She said a ranking superior in the company had the habit of sending e-mail jokes derogatory of women to colleagues on the office computer, in violation of various company policies. Her efforts to get the ranking superior to stop sending such e mails led to a pattern of retalliation, she said. Thereafter, the company progressively isolated her from more and more work assignments, and eventually demoted her.
Katz is one of two clients represented by Seattle attorney Patricia Buchanan who are claiming they were victims of sexual harrassment at Halliburton. The other, Tami Silicio, drove a truck for the company, which she noted is traditionally a male profession. When she refused sexual propositions from co-workers, they started calling her names like "bitch" and "whore," according to a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Additionally, the coworkers told her "you should be at home pleasing a man and not at work trying to be one." After reporting this to upper managment, she was fired in retalliation, according to the complaint.
A spokesperson for Cheney said that the former Secretary of Defense has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harrassment. Representatives of Brown and Root Services said they could not comment on sexual harrassment claims nor any similar private personnel matters.
Rather than get involved in the 'he said, she said' debate unfortunately attendant to any case involving allegations of sexual harrassment, I would prefer to stay focused on the issue of requiring co-workers to use separate bathrooms depending on their ethnicities. There is no argument whether the segregated facilities exist, only whether there is justifiable reason for them.
Katz, 32, who now resides in Gig Harbor, Wash., recalled how she felt in September of 1999 when she discovered that women from Kosovo were not permitted to use the same bathrooms as she could at a satellite company facility.
The feeling was similar to what it would be "if you walked into a bathrooom in an American company and saw 'Blacks' on one door and 'Whites' on another door, or you saw a bathroom that was labeled 'Jews' and you were told that it was because 'Jews carry more diseases,'" she said.
"These are the kinds of things that were said and happened in nazi Germany and during the time of segregation in the United States," she added. "And you have to remember the context," she said. Traveling frequently between Brown & Root Services headquarters in Hungary and the company's satellite operations in Kosovo, "I was driving in a place where every day I was driving past mine fields and past mass grave sites.
" I would see houses burning. I would see bombed out buildings. And I would hear stories over and over about how people's family members had been kidnaped, tortured and killed. The question was constantly on my mind of how did this happen?"
Having grown up in a Jewish home and having lived for three months on an Israeli kibbutz, Katz said "it was always drummed into my head that this type of thing, this type of genocide must never happen again. Yet here I found myself in the same region of the world and within the same century, and this thing did happen again. I was always asking myself how this thing could happen, and then it came to me. I figured it out. It starts with people being afraid of others who are different, and they act on their fears. And that is exactly what Brown and Root was doing.
"Ironically, we Americans came over to help the military save these people, and in the process, it was like a vicious circle, that we were starting to do the same things to them that their oppressors had done to them. When I saw this, this was all I was thinking about, and nobody understood what I was talking about there. It didn't matter to them."
Perhaps it didn't matter to them, but it ought to matter to us.
It is an outrage that a private American company serving in Eastern Europe as part of the United States Defense establishment -- that is representing you and me -- is fostering this kind of racism.
A Department of Defense spokeswoman told me she knows of no DOD regulation covering this matter, no policy which prevents an American company from acting in such a degrading and discriminatory manner against other people.
There really ought to be such a policy. Racial segregation is wrong whether it is here or in Eastern Europe. It's possible that Dick Cheney really wasn't aware of what was happening on his watch. But now that he does know, he ought to denounce the practice.
And while he is thinking about the slogan "Bush-Cheney in 2000," there are two important maxims he must ponder: "Jim Crow Must Go!" and "Never Again!"