When Congress finally passed fast-track trade authority last month, there was a major problem for President Obama and his trade negotiators: a provision of the bill forbid any fast-tracked trade deal from including countries on Tier 3 of the State Department’s human trafficking list.
That’s the worst classification the United States gives to countries in its Trafficking In Persons annual report, a status earned by countries like Zimbabwe, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and North Korea. Also on the list: Malaysia, one of the 12 potential signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that is in the final round of negotiations this month.
Malaysia is home to many “outsourcing companies” that are, in reality, professional slaving operations: foreign workers, often refugees fleeing desperate situations in nearby countries like Burma, are recruited to the country with the promise of legitimate work but then subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. The State Department and international human rights groups have routinely concluded the Malaysian government does very little to inhibit the traffickers’ operation.
Senator Robert Menendez inserted language into the Senate version of fast-track prohibiting the use of fast-track for a trade deal with a Tier 3 country, presumably with an eye on Malaysia. The Obama administration and Republican leaders in the House tried to have the language removed but were unable to excise it due to the complicated path the fast-track bill took through Congress.
Observers were then unsure what would happen next. Would Malaysia be thrown out of the deal? Would the United States lean hard on the Malaysian government to crack down on human traffickers so it could sign the trade deal? Was there any chance fast track would be disengaged for the TPP?
Instead, the Obama administration appears to have chosen another path that has shocked the human-rights community: It will simply reclassify Malaysia. Reuters has reported that when the Trafficking in Persons report comes out next week, Malaysia will no longer be a Tier 3 country.
There is essentially zero evidence Malaysia has done anything to earn this reclassification. Just two months ago, police found 139 mass graves along the Malaysian border that contained migrant workers that had been trafficked or held for ransom.
Since the 2014 TIP report, Malaysia has actually convicted fewer smugglers. As recently as mid-April, the US ambassador to Malaysia publicly criticized the government there for not doing more to combat trafficking. One house of the Malaysian legislature did pass an anti-trafficking bill last month, but trafficking was already illegal—the problem has always been extremely lax enforcement, and there’s no sign that’s changed.