fresh voices from the front lines of change







"Pope Francis says when the economy controls politics both lose ... When economics takes over we tolerate anything for the sake of the dollar."
- Sister Simone Campbell

Cheap labor is the whole point of our corporate-rigged, NAFTA-style trade agreements. Companies get to move jobs, factories, even entire industries out of the U.S. to countries where people are exploited, the environment is not protected and "costs" like human safety are kept low.

But even so ... tolerating slavery? Flat-out slavery? Really? Unfortunately, it looks like that's what is happening with fast-track trade promotion authority, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Obama administration.

Malaysia Reclassified

A few weeks ago Wall Street and the giant, multinational corporations got their way and pushed "fast track" through the Congress. This set up a special voting procedure for trade agreements – and only for trade agreements – that makes sure these rigged deals can get through Congress before the public can be organized to rise up in opposition.

However, one good thing did make it into this recent fast-track bill. The bill said the administration cannot go into a trade deal with any country that is a "Tier 3" human trafficking (slavery) violator.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) requires the State Department to compile a Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report that ranks countries according to their compliance with certain TVPA standards. Countries are ranked:

Tier 1 if the fully comply with the TVPA's minimum standards.
Tier 2 if they do not fully comply but are making significant efforts to come into compliance.
Tier 2 Watchlist if 1) they are Tier 2 and the number of victims is either very high or increasing; or ; or 2) they were Tier 2 the prior year and have no evidence of trying to fix that or; or 3) they had promised to take additional future steps over the next year.
Tier 3 if they do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making serious efforts to do so.

Malaysia was a Tier 3 country in the 2014 TIP report. The 2015 TIP report was supposed to be released in June but was delayed coincident with the passage of fast-track legislation with the slavery clause. The report was released Monday, and changes Malaysia's TIP rating from the worst "Tier 3" to a “Tier 2,″ even though there is little or no change in Malaysia’s actual performance.

Being a human trafficking country means real things to real people. For example, in late May Malaysian police found mass graves containing the bodies of 139 people, apparently trafficked migrant workers. (Click through for photos of cages where people had been held.)

The findings appeared to indicate a system of jungle camps and graves that dwarfs those found by Thai police in early May, a discovery that ignited regional concern about people smuggling and trafficking.

The discovery also follows repeated denials by top Malaysian officials – who have long been accused by rights groups of not doing enough to address the illicit trade – that such sites existed on their soil.

David Dayen further explains Malaysia's human trafficking situation at The Intercept, in "Blocked From Trade Pact By Its Failure on Slavery, Malaysia Suddenly Gets a Passing Grade":

In 2014, the State Department demoted Malaysia to Tier 3 status for being a destination “for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking.” Malaysia’s 4 million foreign workers are threatened by large smuggling debts and confiscated passports that put them at the mercy of recruiting companies. Women in particular, recruited for hotel or beauty salon work, are routinely coerced into the commercial sex trade. And forced labor runs rampant in agricultural, construction and textile industries, producing the same goods that would get duty-free access to U.S. markets under TPP.

So there it is. You can't have Tier 3 human trafficking countries in TPP, and Malaysia is a Tier 3 human trafficking country ... uh oh, a big problem for TPP, and for the Obama administration's desire to get TPP through with Malaysia in it.

So to fix the problem the Obama administration just changed Malaysia's classification from "Tier 3" to "Tier 2" for no apparent reason except TPP. Problem solved. Malaysia's slavery problem and its victims? Not so much.

Faith And Human Rights Groups Respond

Representatives of faith and human rights groups responded on a conference call Monday, moderated by Melinda St. Louis, Director of International Campaigns, Public Citizen and with Reverend Dr. J Herbert Nelson, Director, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Office of Public Witness; Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director, NETWORK (Nuns on the Bus); Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch, Deputy Director -  Asia Division; Tom Andrews, President of United to End Genocide and former Member of Congress and Reverend Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe,  General Secretary of United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society participating as speakers.

Here are notes from that conference call, quotation marks used where certain:

St. Louis' comments set the stage. The TIP report, released six weeks late, changed Malaysia to a Tier 2 country, even though 139 graves of trafficking victims were found just this May. Congress barred trade deals with Level 3 countries. It looks like the State Department report was manipulated to facilitate Malaysia’s participation in TPP.

Nelson spoke of "our creator’s call for the perpetuation of human dignity. This accrues to individuals but also to nations." He added, "Our faith calls us to stand against this type of denial of human dignity .. the usury mill of individuals."

Nelson called for the Obama administration and Congress "to truly move forward, not elevate from one tier to another when it is clear they are involved, not being upgraded to a position where they can sit at a table and financially benefit as well as our nation while debasing individuals."

"This is about the integrity of our nation, for people of faith it is about the integrity of our faith," Nelson said.

Campbell said the TIP report raises Malaysia from bad actor to a watch list; it doesn’t appear to be any evidence of why there has been a change. Malaysia had nine convictions for trafficking in 2013 but only three in 2014. The report contradicts itself in claims that Malaysia is trying – by the data they have not improved.

"Even Cambodia prohibits domestic workers from going to Malaysia because they are so likely to be exploited," Campbell said.

When Cambodia has it right and we have it wrong that is a bad day for all of us, she said.

Campbell urged the administration in preparation for Pope Frances’ visit to change its ways.

Robertson explained that the situation is "far from sufficient to justify this upgrade."

"How can the State Department call this progress?" Twenty-five percent of Malaysia workforce come from somewhere else, using recruitment firms, smugglers, debt bondage, restrictions on movement, even human trafficking. Malaysia doesn’t even stop employers from seizing passports from workers. There is no substantive action to deal with corrupt officials.

Malaysia's own reporting says 80 percent of Malay border officials are involved in corruption. Migrants fear going to the government because of official connivance with traffickers, and traffickers are not brought to justice.

This upgrade is about TPP not fighting human trafficking. This damages an important report that has been about global efforts to combat slavery.

Andrews also said there is widespread and pervasive corruption, with women and girls forced into prostitution. We know about the camps, mass graves at the Thai border. But Malaysia said there are "no criminal elements" involved with these mass graves.

The TIP Report's aim is to enlighten, energize and empower activists, this release has done exactly the opposite. Despite all evidence that Malaysia does not deserve this upgrade, we believe the administration is undermining the credibility of this tool, which leaves the world’s move vulnerable populations to suffer the consequences, Andrews said.

Burton said a coalition of faith organizations is fighting human trafficking. They had applauded U.S. monitoring and the TIP report before this. The decision to upgrade Malaysia is especially disturbing. "We are gravely concerned that our brothers and sisters will become more susceptible." Malaysia is at best not enforcing. This does not reflect our nation's commitment to human rights. The U.S. needs to rethink its upgrade from tier 3 to tier 2.

Key Statements

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J):

“I am profoundly disappointed by this year’s TIP report. The Administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress, leading human rights advocates, and Malaysian government officials to preserve the integrity of this important report. They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights.

... In Malaysia, members of the Parliament, the legal profession, and human rights activists have urged the United States to support their efforts and to maintain the Tier 3 ranking they tell us Malaysia deserves. Today, we have failed them. ... The United States’ commitment and credibility in fighting the scourge of modern-day slavery is on the line. We need to make clear that the TIP report must not be subject to political manipulation."

Communications Workers of America (CWA):

“A bad trade deal for the American people is made all the worse when its pursuit tramples on our country's basic values and makes a mockery of the supposed independence of the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report. The facts are clear - Malaysia has a serious human trafficking problem that has not improved and the Obama Administration is placing the completion of the TPP ahead of human trafficking concerns.

"Further, Malaysia's upgraded ranking calls into question TPP backers' claims about this trade deal upholding and advancing global improvements on human and labor rights and environmental standards. We simply should not be rewarding bad actor countries like Malaysia with inclusion in trade deals.

"For those who followed the fast track debate closely, it shouldn't be a surprise that backers of the TPP would resort to any means possible to finish this deal. But that we are not surprised shouldn't diminish the audacious and troubling nature of today's announcement."


This decision is wrong and outrageous. It is a political decision that 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 administration has had difficulty securing approval for fast track. Today's cynical upgrade of a nation where forced labor, human trafficking, and exploitation remain pervasive, undermines its promises on labor rights, human rights, and anti-corruption in trade deals and does not bode well for TPP passage.

Alisa Simmons, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch,

"The administration knows that the TPP will have trouble in Congress, but turning a blind eye to Malaysia’s grave human rights violations in order to include Malaysia in the pact because it’s one of the few TPP countries we don’t already have a trade deal with and keeping the TPP on Fast Track so Congress’ oversight is limited is shameful. If the Obama administration is willing to ignore people-smuggling camps in Malaysia, why should we believe it would not also ignore TPP member Brunei’s criminalization of homosexuality, TPP member Vietnam’s widespread child labor or TPP member Peru’s rollback of environmental protections?"

Citizens Trade Campaign is asking people to sign on to this action: "Speak out now against any attempt to gloss over human trafficking in TPP countries."

And from Public Citizen: "Sign the Pledge to Fight the TPP"

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