A Malaysian policeman leaves the site of the place where human remains were found, near an abandoned human trafficking camp, in the jungle close to the Thailand border at Bukit Wang Burma in northern Malaysia, May 29, 2015.
Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

How Obama’s trade deal could be changed to stop slavery

Since 2004, the United States has taken leadership in holding itself and countries worldwide accountable in efforts to combat human trafficking. Now, we are considering rewarding one of the world’s most egregious violators of basic human freedom. 

If we care about ending slavery, we cannot allow Malaysia to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Annually, the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report ranks countries, ranging from Tier 1 to Tier 3, with Tier 3 being reserved for those governments who have not complied with minimum standards to end slavery or have not made any efforts to do so.

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After three years of remaining on the Tier 2 Watch list, Malaysia fell to Tier 3 and joined the likes of Syria and Kuwait. Now, the White House wants to reward one of the world’s most violently abusive countries with a trade agreement that will enrich those already profiting off of slave labor of millions of migrant workers.

Simplistically stated, we are now at a crossroads where we must decide what we value more – the profits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or ending slave labor. Some of the very industries that stand to benefit most from this trade deal are within those sectors that depend most upon the exploitation of Malaysians, including electronics, where an estimated 28% of the labor force is enslaved.

There should be no consideration higher than that of ending slavery.

Human trafficking is a bipartisan issue, and Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has a clear proposal. Under the Menendez amendment, the United States would not be permitted to enter into formal trade agreements with countries placed on the State Department’s Tier 3 ranking in the annual Trafficking in Persons report. 

You cannot divorce the issues of trade and forced labor in a country dependent on the exploitation of millions of migrants to advance their economy. However, there is a viable solution on the table.

The Menendez amendment is a reasonable compromise: The government of Malaysia can choose to comply with the internationally recognized minimum standards to eradicate the slavery that ensnares millions, or remain on the outside of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Admission into the TPP is one of the greatest incentives for Malaysia to address rampant slavery. If we reward Malaysia’s human rights abuses by including them in this trade deal now, the opportunity to enforce measurable change will be lost and countless Malaysians and migrants will suffer.

The Trafficking in Persons Report outlines concrete steps that Malaysia can take toward ending slavery, including allowing survivors of trafficking to travel, work, and reside outside government facilities and prohibiting employers from confiscating the passports of migrant workers. Many of those who have been trafficked are held in jail-like institutions for up to a year. The practice of withholding passports and restricting a worker’s freedom of travel leads to the total dependency of the worker on their employer. As a preventative measure, the government should also work to set up programs to inform women and girls coming to Malaysia of the dangers of being recruited into sex trafficking.

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Furthermore, Malaysia should not be upgraded to a higher tier ranking when just this year more than 100 mass graves of enslaved people were found in camps around the country. The mass graves are shocking, but the pervasive and multi-layered abuse of migrant workers coming into Malaysia runs much deeper. The United States should take this unique opportunity to pressure Malaysia to put an end to slavery, including hundreds of slave camps, and to effectively save the lives of thousands of vulnerable people.

By allowing Malaysia to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Congress endangers the past 11 years of efforts by the United States to press governments to end slavery practices in their countries. Malaysia’s problem of human trafficking is based on their willing reliance on slave labor. Progress to serve victims has been slow at best; even the few victims identified by the country are detained for months in detention facilities before being allowed to go home.

Young mothers face a gut-wrenching decision—what to do when their children are starving and they face barriers to formal employment, including illiteracy and being part of a discriminated ethnic minority group. Oftentimes, paying a smuggler to take them to Malaysia appears to be the best possibility for a better life. 

Instead, after facing an arduous journey to a new country, employers force women and children in these families into the commercial sex trade, confiscate their passports, and their only chance of rescue can result in government detention where abuses continue and access to medical resources is rare.

Congress must seize this opportunity to break this cycle of slavery and put people before profit.

Andrea Powell is executive director of the anti-trafficking group FAIR Girls.

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How Obama's trade deal could be changed to stop slavery