The fast-track authority legislation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership recently passed by Congress says we can't make "trade" agreements like TPP with countries that violate human rights. There is a report that to get around this rule the administration is going to declare the worst violators of human rights to be OK after all.
The still-secret TPP is close to being completed. Once that happens it comes to Congress. But the trade promotion authority law that preceded it prohibits the U.S. from entering into "trade" agreements with "tier 3" human-trafficking countries.
According to news reports, the Obama administration found an easy – and extremely cynical – fix: just change Malaysia's rating to a "tier 2." Problem solved. But human rights groups, labor and members of Congress are "outraged," "shocked" and "deeply disturbed." They are trying to warn the State Department off from doing this.
One of the sticking points with TPP has been Malaysia's "widespread forced labor and worker abuse." The State Department's Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report was supposed to be released in June but was delayed. Now it appears the Obama administration might be solving the problem by changing the TIP rating of Malaysia to a "Tier 2" even though there is little change in Malaysia's actual performance.
Human trafficking? Slavery? Sex slaves? People kept in cages? Mass graves? Abuse of workers? No problem. Just tell the State Department to ignore it. If this happens the Obama administration will undermine the integrity of our country's human rights efforts to increase the profit and power of a few giant multinational corporations.
Reuters broke the story, in "Exclusive - U.S. upgrades Malaysia in annual human trafficking report: sources":
The United States is upgrading Malaysia from the lowest tier on its list of worst human trafficking centres, U.S. sources said on Wednesday, a move that could smooth the way for an ambitious U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.
[. . .] Some U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates had expected Malaysia to remain on Tier 3 this year given its slow pace of convictions in human-trafficking cases and pervasive trafficking in industries such as electronics and palm oil.
What next? Name Brunei and Vietnam -- other problematic TPP participants -- as human rights and worker paradises?
Among the 12 TPP countries, Brunei has also come under attack by human-rights groups for adopting Islamic criminal law, which includes punishing offences such as sodomy and adultery with death, including by stoning. Vietnam's Communist government has been criticized for jailing dissidents.
Emergency Call With Senator Menedez
Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) organized a Friday morning media call to explain the background and what is known about this report. On the call were human rights advocates as well. On the call Senator Menendez said that the fast track rule prohibiting trade deals with TIP "Tier 3" countries was a "clear bipartisan statement of principles" and Malaysia's TIP rating has "no reason to be raised." There should not be "political interference" with the Trafficking In Persons report. He has faith in the staff of the State Department and their integrity, they are good people who are trying to do their jobs, but worries about political interference from higher up.
Menendez said, "if true looks like cynical maneuver to get around the clear intent of Congress," and that the "integrity of US international human rights leadership in my view is at stake." The administration "appears to be giving Malaysia a sweetheart deal."
"Undermining TIP report is an incredibly dangerous proposition."
Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice advocate organization ("Nuns on the bus"), said there is a "moral consequence of moving in any direction that gives permission for human trafficking." "Pope Francis said people of good will must not allow these men women and children to be treated as objects."
"We cannot back away now just because of some economic benefit we might gain in this spurious trade agreement. ... We must make sure there is no change in the rating of Malaysia as long as there has been no change in Malaysia’s actions."
The AFL-CIO issued the following statement,
AFL-CIO Condemns State Department Upgrade of Malaysia on Trafficking List
Statement by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in response to reports indicating the United States is prepared to upgrade the Malaysian government in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report:
We are outraged by this clearly political decision, which undermines the integrity of the TIP Report and signals that the U.S. is willing to turn a blind eye to modern slavery and grave human and labor rights abuses in order to advance its trade agenda.
The situation in Malaysia has not improved: forced labor, human trafficking, and exploitation remain pervasive. If Malaysia is rewarded with greater market access under the Trans-Pacific Partnership without having to first undertake fundamental reforms, there will be little incentive for Malaysia to end this brutality. Unfortunately, the administration appears to be resolute in forging a flawed trade agreement with countries that currently violate fundamental labor and human rights while continuing a global race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby issued a statement that begins,
We are shocked by reports that the U.S. State Department plans to upgrade Malaysia’s status to the “Tier 2 Watch List” on human trafficking. If true, this is nothing more than a crass, political ploy to circumvent U.S. legislative requirements that Tier 3 countries be barred from “fast track” trade deals. According to Sister Simone Campbell, NETWORK’s Executive Director, “This can only be seen as a cynical political action meant to bolster Malaysia’s trade status with the U.S. at the expense of countless human trafficking victims. Coming so soon after the discovery in May of almost 150 graves in Malaysian camps of trafficking victims, the State Department’s reported decision cannot be justified on any level.”
The Communications Workers of America (CWA),
“The Trafficking in Persons Report – and the horrific human rights abuses that remain ongoing in Malaysia in particular – is too important to have its credibility sacrificed for short-term political expediency” said Shane Larson, Legislative Director of CWA. “It is outrageous that the State Department would turn a blind eye to some of the most egregious trafficking that we have seen in years simply to grease the skids for passage of a trade agreement designed to benefit multinational corporations."
Rep. Sander Levin is "deeply disturbed" by the report,
Reports of a change in Malaysia’s human trafficking ranking are deeply disturbing. I will thoroughly review the rationale in the report when it is released. It is crucial that consideration of Malaysia’s record on human trafficking reflect the realities on the ground and not a glossing over of those realities to assist Malaysia’s participation in TPP.
Senator Benjamin Cardin, from the Reuters report,
Senator Benjamin Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plans to express his concern to the White House over the planned upgrade. “It is essential that we maintain the integrity of the TIP ranking system, and the United States’ extraordinary leadership on this issue,” his spokeswoman, Sue Walitsky, said in a statement.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, from the Reuters report,
Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said, "Our legitimacy and moral authority on the issue of human trafficking is being undermined in an effort to smooth the path for the TPP."
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking is quoted in Reuters' Rights groups urge U.S. to reconsider Malaysia human-trafficking rating,
Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of 14 U.S.-based human rights organizations, said a Malaysian upgrade would lack credibility, would undermine the State Department’s anti-trafficking reports and would be “purely political.”
Human Rights Watch, also from the Reuters report,
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said he "would be shocked if Malaysia were upgraded."
"They have done very little to improve the protection from abuse that migrant workers face. They have done precious little, frankly, to merit an upgrade," he said.