The Obama administration has upgraded Malaysia’s status in the State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons” report in order to ease the country’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), according to human rights groups and others.
“[Malaysia’s] record on stopping trafficking is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “This upgrade is more about the TPP and US trade politics than anything Malaysia did to combat human trafficking over the past year.”
This is a new low for those trying to rush the TPP to approval. In 2014, the U.S. State Department listed Malaysia among the world’s worst countries when it comes to human trafficking. While exact counts are impossible to come by, we’re likely talking about millions of people affected. Many of these modern-day slaves end up not only as prostitutes and domestic servants, but working in Malaysia’s export-oriented electronics, seafood and palm oil sectors. One-third of all electronics workers in Malaysia are estimated to be trafficking victims.
Less you think this is anything less awful and barbaric than it really is, just this spring, dozens of trafficking camps with guard posts, barbed wire and their own mass graves were uncovered in the country’s jungles. A human rights campaigner said at the time, “The only way these kinds of camps could operate was with the support of military, police and politicians who were either directly involved or were paid to look the other way.”
The Fast Track legislation recently passed by Congress — as awful as it was — at least included a provision against fast tracking trade deals with the worst human trafficking abusers. Rather than requiring the Malaysian to clean up its act before it joins the TPP, the Obama administration has chosen to just write the problem away with a new trafficking report that says the country is no longer that big of a concern.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, “The unwarranted upgrade is presumed to be result of political interference by the administration to ensure that Malaysia remains eligible to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.”
Rep. Sandy Levin, ranking member of the Ways & Means Committee which oversees trade policy, said that the “administration’s upgrade of Malaysia in the human trafficking report — without evidence of significant changes on the ground — is extremely concerning.”
An Amnesty International representative further argued that “Malaysia’s anti-trafficking efforts have been severely wanting,” and that “the U.S.’s willingness to sidestep one of the world’s worst rights crises” was instead motivated by “the value of trade this would bring.”
The administration’s alleged willingness to turn a blind-eye to trafficking abuses in Malaysia in order to get the TPP done also does not bode well for the hope of any enforcement of labor and environmental provisions were the TPP actually enacted. If the administration were serious about using the TPP to enforce basic rights, they would make such enforcement a prerequisite to joining.