THE AFL-CIO US trade union federation stated yesterday that the Obama administration has made the deplorable decision to upgrade Malaysia – a major player in the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement – on its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
This clearly political decision undermines the credibility of important anti-trafficking efforts and underscores the fact that the Obama administration is perfectly willing to abandon workers to pursue its trade agenda. It is also yet another sign that the TPP will only continue a global race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.
Malaysia’s upgrade from the lowest possible ranking – tier three, which carries certain economic sanctions and signifies the government does not comply with the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so – occurred after lawmakers placed certain restrictions in this summer’s Fast Track bill that would prohibit the United States from fast tracking trade agreements with tier-three countries. The upgrade is supposed to signify progress to curb human trafficking, but labour and human rights groups tell a different story.
In September 2014, Verite released an exposé of the human trafficking rampant in Malaysia, and just this May, police uncovered 139 makeshift graves in the jungle alongside abandoned cages used to detain migrant workers—an operation so massive many believe local officials were complicit. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal accused Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of pocketing more than $700 million in public funds, and Malaysia is ranked only ‘partly free’ on Freedom House.
Unfortunately, this regime has a history of corruption and anti-transparency that undermines any promises it may make with regard to human trafficking. Trafficking is a major black market industry in Malaysia, and local officials frequently line their pockets or turn a blind eye to the pervasive exploitation. The majority of the victims of forced labour in Malaysia are among the country’s 4 million migrant workers – 40% of the overall workforce.
Migrant workers and their families seek a better life in Malaysia, but too often face a range of abuses related to their recruitment and employment, including debt bondage, restrictions on movement, stolen wages, document confiscation and denial of freedom of association, and often are threatened with deportation for speaking out. From the electronics industry to agriculture, domestic work and the garment sector, human trafficking and forced labour remains hidden through layers of subcontracted employment and production.
Because of this exploitative system, about 28% of electronics workers toil in conditions of forced labour, and virtually everyone who regularly uses electronics in the United States has come in contact with forced labour. Some of the most recognisable electronics brands source components from Malaysia. Unfortunately, migrant workers and workers in ‘pioneer industries’ like electronics face significant obstacles, in law and in practice, to organising unions and bargaining.
Thus, they are denied the opportunity to improve their wages and working conditions. The Obama administration’s embrace of a country that fails to comply with minimum labour standards and uphold basic human dignity tarnishes its record on labour and human rights. It has squandered an opportunity to use diplomatic and economic incentives to push Malaysia to root out corruption, and reform.
By not requiring fundamental changes of Malaysia, and other countries like Mexico, Vietnam and Brunei, first, the TPP gives away leverage that could be used to protect workers and raise standards across the globe. If workers do not have the legal freedoms to act collectively, they will not be able to exert the power needed to raise wages, increase worker protections or gain the social protections necessary for the creation of a middle class and broadly shared prosperity.
US workers and workers everywhere need a 21st century trade agreement that enforces labour standards and creates decent work. Currently, the corporate-driven TPP appears to fail to reach that benchmark. The ITUC is also deeply concerned that the US State Department has upgraded Malaysia from ‘Tier 3’ to ‘Tier 2 Watch’ in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
The unwarranted upgrade is presumed to be the result of political interference by the administration to ensure that Malaysia remains eligible to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which has been under negotiation since 2008. The recently adopted Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) provides that Tier 3 countries cannot be parties to trade agreements with the United States.
The status upgrade comes just two months after the discovery in Malaysia of mass graves containing 139 bodies of migrant workers. Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have recently documented widespread trafficking in Malaysia. And, a recent report published by Verite – at the request of the US Department of labour – found that workers in the Malaysian electronics sector were trafficked for forced labour.
These goods are exported to the United States. In 2015, the ILO also ‘strongly encouraged’ Malaysia ‘to take measures to ensure that migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers, are fully protected from abusive practices and conditions that amount to forced labour.’ The Malaysia Trade Union Congress (MTUC) Secretary-General, Gopal Kishnam, said that ‘should the US State Department upgrade Malaysia to Tier 2 Status in the upcoming Trafficking in Persons Report to give way to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would only raise the questions of credibility as it has failed to mirror the actual realities faced by victims of trafficking.’ The MTUC reports that ‘many employers are still wrongly holding on to passports and work passes/visas/permits… When workers claim their rights through existing legal avenues, many employers simply terminate their workers, and for migrant workers this also mean the loss of ability to stay in Malaysia which is a requirement in law if they want to pursue their claims for justice.
‘The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report was a well-documented, authoritative and often-cited report on forced labour. ‘But now we have valid reasons to believe that the Report is being openly manipulated to create results that fit the purposes of the US trade agenda.’
‘This move calls into question both the credibility of the report and the administration’s commitment to uphold labour standards through trade,’ said Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary. The US State Department certified on Monday that Malaysia is making progress in the fight against human trafficking — but human rights groups, Malaysian activists, and a number of US Senators accuse Barack Obama’s administration of manipulating the record to allow the Southeast Asian country to join the president’s massive free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry released the annual Trafficking in Human Persons report (TIP), upgrading Malaysia from Tier 3, the worst designation, to its ‘Tier 2 Watch List.’ ‘The Government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,’ the report said.
The upgrade allows the Obama administration to ‘fast-track’ Malaysia’s membership in the TPP. An amendment written by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had barred countries with a Tier 3 designation from participating in the trade deal. Menendez responded that the report jeopardised US credibility in fighting human trafficking.
‘I am profoundly disappointed by this year”s TIP report,’ he said in statement. ‘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.’ Many anti-human trafficking advocates are crying foul.
‘The State Department has sold out human rights to corporate and regional interests,’ David Abramowitz, the former chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, told VICE News following Monday’s announcement. ‘Like Malaysian unions, experts, and rights activists, we are astounded at this decision,’ Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of nonprofit labour organisation the Solidarity Center, told VICE News.
‘The administration has lost a huge opportunity to advance human rights in its trade relationships with the “upgrade”. Either ending trafficking is a priority, or it isn’t. This decision makes it look like it is not a priority.’