Today, the Obama administration 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 labor 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 labor 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 labor remains hidden through layers of subcontracted employment and production.
Because of this exploitative system, about 28% of electronics workers toil in conditions of forced labor, and virtually everyone who regularly uses electronics in the United States has come in contact with forced labor. Some of the most recognizable 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 organizing unions and bargaining. Thus, they are denied the opportunity to improve their ages and working conditions.
The Obama administration’s embrace of a country that fails to comply with minimum labor standards and uphold basic human dignity tarnishes its record on labor 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. U.S. workers and workers everywhere need a 21st century trade agreement that enforces labor standards and creates decent work. Currently, the corporate-driven TPP appears to fail to reach that benchmark.
Read more from the Solidarity Center on Malaysia: