When President Obama was selling Congress on granting “fast track” for his Trans-Pacific Partnership, he made lots of huge (and improbable) promises. His new 12-nation trade deal would protect worker rights better than ever before in the global economy, he vowed, and the environment too. Human exploitation is wrong; Obama said he would stop it. Despite spirited resistance from skeptical Democrats, the Republican Congress drank the Kool-Aid.
Sure enough, Obama sort of kept his promise to address human rights abuses in Malaysia, though he did so by simply denying the country’s well-documented record of human exploitation. With an obscure bureaucratic fix at the State Department, the president cleansed Malaysia—where millions of Asian women, men, and children come in search of jobs and find themselves forced into sex slavery, indentured labor, and debt peonage—of its notorious record of human trafficking
Malaysia was just awarded a ratings upgrade that contradicts the facts of the State Department’s own reports and investigations. This is the kind of odious backroom deal that often accompanies trade negotiations. Without the upgrade, Malaysia would have been barred from signing on as one of America’s TPP partners.
Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Menendez of New Jersey didn’t like the smell. The decision, Brown said, “is grounded in politics—not in facts.… Giving countries with clear evidence of human rights violations like Malaysia a front row seat to join the TPP is unconscionable.”
Last month, Brown and Menendez amended the fast-track legislation to bar any Tier 3 nations like Malaysia. No problem; US diplomats simply announced Malaysia is now Tier 2. Senators may complain, but they are powerless. With fast-track legislation, Congress surrendered its power to reject or rewrite any particulars of the final TPP deal.
Just for the record, this is what the State Department said about Malaysia only last year:
Foreign workers typically migrate willingly to Malaysia from other countries in Asia—primarily Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Thailand and Laos—in search greater economic opportunities. Some of the migrants subsequently encounter forced labor or debt bondage at the hands of employers, employment agents or informal labor recruiters…
A significant number of young foreign women are recruited ostensibly for legal work in Malaysian restaurants, hotels and beauty salons, but are subsequently coerced into the commercial sex trade. Some Vietnamese women and girls enter into brokered marriages in Malaysia and are subsequently forced into prostitution. NGOs report Ugandan, Somali and Ethiopian women are fraudulently recruited to Malaysia ostensibly legitimate work, but subsequently forced into prostitution. Malaysian authorities report that large organized crime syndicates are responsible for some instances of trafficking.
Many other deals are still on the bargaining table as the 12 nations meet this weekend in Hawaii, presumably to close out the final terms. Indeed, some “partners” are losing enthusiasm or making final demands that could drive other nations away from signing. One official of the Asian Development Bank told The Economist, “It won’t be the gold-standard deal they’ve been talking about and they will be lucky to get a silver. Perhaps it will be a bronze.”
Canada is refusing to open its economy to free trade on milk and dairy products or surrender its subsidies for that sector. The Canadian conservative party is facing a national election in October, so it may want to postpone any action until afterwards,
If Canada doesn’t open up, then New Zealand, a major exporter, might also drop out. And the US dairy lobby demands no opening for New Zealand if Canada isn’t opening up.
On the other hand, junior partners from Asia are grumbling that the United States has been “bullying and hypocritical,” pushing an agenda that is not really about worker rights but essentially “the US corporate wish list.” That means the drug-industry giants who want to hold off cheaper competition from Asian upstarts or the rice growers and beef farmers from Arkansas who want access to Japan.
The United States and Japan are talking like they have a deal—almost—on letting US rice producers into the Japanese market. But don’t count on it until it actually happens. American diplomats have been trying to accomplish this for more than 30 years. The Japanese talk “yes,” but real-life results have always been “not yet.”
Competing on price with the far more efficient US producers would be devastating for the small-plot rice farms of Japan, an important political and cultural sector. Trade experts say Japan is still talking about protecting its “sacred” food—rice, beef, and wheat.
None of these details mean the TPP will necessarily fail. The last stages of trade negotiations always involve inflated bluffs and threats, so it’s impossible to know what’s real and what’s propaganda for consumption back home.
When the results are finally known, Congress gets two months to study them and decide—yes or no—whether to approve the final package. No amendments are allowed.
Maybe at that point President Obama can offer apologies, not to the House and Senate but to those exploited women in Asia whom he tossed over the side.