Americans of all political persuasions abhor human trafficking. So why is the Obama administration pushing a highly controversial trade pact that would reward nations with some of the world’s worst human trafficking records? It is a good question, and one that has been brought into sharp focus by reports overnight of the discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims on the Malaysian-Thai border. The grisly finds underline the extent to which both Malaysia and Thailand remain hot-beds of one of the world’s most despicable industries. Some human trafficking victims — typically adult males — are abducted to work as slaves in, for instance, the Thai fishing industry. Meanwhile, both the Thai and Malaysian governments are heavily complicit in the exploitation of countless women and children in East Asia’s brothels. Yet, almost unbelievably, the Obama administration is pushing for Malaysia to enjoy specially privileged access to the U.S. market under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Thailand is believed to be next in line when the second round of nations joins.
The Senate voted last week to give the Obama administration so-called fast-track authority to negotiate the TPP’s terms, but in a technical glitch the Senate unintentionally included a more or less insurmountable barrier against Malaysia’s inclusion. A House vote is imminent and embarrassing new revelations about Malaysia’s involvement in human trafficking may help persuade Congressmen to stand up to the administration. The point of fast-track is to allow the administration not only a free hand in negotiating the details of trade treaties but to do so in secret. It is generally agreed that without fast-track, the TPP is dead in the water. Although many of fast-track’s longest established critics are Democrats, in recent weeks many Republicans including prominent Presidential hopefuls such as Carly Fiorina have come out against it.
Perhaps most ominously for the administration, the State Department is due to publish its 2015 global review of human trafficking in the next few weeks. In previous years its condemnations of both Malaysia and Thailand have been slashing. As the London Guardian pointed out, although these nations promote themselves as modern fast-developing countries, their ranking in the State Department’s annual survey “puts them among the world’s most lawless, oppressive and dysfunctional.”
In its 2014 survey, for instance, the State Department explicitly accused the Malaysian government of conniving with people smugglers to worsen the predicament of victims: “Victims were not allowed to leave the country pending trial proceedings. The government’s policy of forcing trafficking victims into facilities discouraged victims from bringing cases to the government’s attention or cooperating with authorities…..Some foreign embassies sheltered victims directly to expedite their repatriation and protect them from detention in Malaysian facilities during lengthy criminal proceedings. Some NGOs reported that they did not refer victims to the police, as they believed doing so was detrimental to the welfare of the victims.
The review added: “In addition, a complex system of recruitment and contracting fees, often deducted from workers’ wages, makes workers vulnerable to debt bondage. A Malaysian government policy implemented in January 2013 that places the burden of paying immigration and employment authorization fees on foreign workers, rather than the employers, increased this risk.”