US Pushing for Massive Trade Deal With Countries that Still Practice Slavery

By Claire Bernish

When it comes to trade deals, nothing is more shrouded in secrecy or stitched together with contentious legislation than the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The saga encompassing the political jujitsu necessary to pass off the deal in a favorable light just hit new lows somewhat south of absurdity. In order to ensure a strategically vital country remains a partner in the TPP, the White House has decided human slavery and trafficking need to be overlooked.

President Obama’s appearance outside Nike, a company with an abysmal habit of seeking slave-wage labor coupled with the most limited bargaining power for workers possible, to tout the tough labor standards of the TPP, was telling for many. “It’s the highest-standard, most progressive trade deal in history. It’s got strong, enforceable provisions for workers, preventing things like child labor […] And these are enforceable in the agreement.” And furthermore, if “[…] countries in this trade agreement don’t meet these requirements, they’ll face meaningful consequences. If you’re a country that wants in to this agreement, you have to meet higher standards. If you don’t, you’re out. If you break the rules, there are actual repercussions,” he boasted.

At the time, this was essentially true. Just prior to Obama’s appearance, er, publicity stunt, a vote had been cast to exclude countries with the worst human trafficking records from the enormous trade agreement. But a pivotal country didn’t meet these standards. So, according to what the president said, they should be excluded. Right?

In the 2014 US Trafficking Victims Protection Act report, Malaysia occupied a new spot among the worst violators, having slipped from “Tier 2” to “Tier 3”, in that it is considered a “destination and, to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking.” Some of these practices include withholding wages for months, passport confiscation, restriction of movement, and forced prostitution. Not only are these practices abhorrent and altogether unacceptable for humanitarian reasons, but the country had promised twice — in writing — to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards. The downgrade occurred when no significant follow through on those plans occurred.

But Malaysia, in the eyes of the US, occupies a geopolitically crucial area, having control of the Strait of Malacca — vital in the region both economically and militarily. If the US fails to include the country, it’s entirely possible Malaysia would consider a trade pact with China, instead. So how does the government plan to get around its own supposedly stringent guidelines which should exclude a tier 3 nation? By loosening the language. Ironically, the new language gives exception if a tier 3 excluded country does exactly what Malaysia did for two years straight — submit plans for improvement.

Senator Bob Menendez had placed the original exclusion for human rights violators in the Trade Promotion Authority bill, which passed last month. His proposal to alleviate the catch-22 he created in the case of Malaysia, was put forward under the guise of toughening the standards:

This modification – to my original amendment – allows for a narrow exception [that] may apply only to a country that has been certified by the State Department as having taken, and I quote: ‘concrete actions . . . to implement the principal recommendations’ of the Trafficking in Persons Report. That has real meaning – those recommendations are the roadmap we layout for countries to move from Tier 3. [emphasis added]

After the stronger provision excluding countries with abysmal human rights records advanced through the Senate, the watered-down exemption will likely wriggle into the Customs Enforcement bill toward the latter part of the trade package. Menendez’ own words about the exemption are striking: “Let all those who are suffering around the world at the hands of traffickers be the face of any future trade agreements.”


Considering the wrangling necessary by the president and backers of the TPP to include a country exhibiting next to zero responsibility for its execrable human rights record, perhaps Menendez offers the best summation: “[It] speaks volumes about how we approach trade.”

Claire Bernish writes for, where this article first appeared. Tune in! The Anti-Media radio show airs Monday through Friday @ 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. Help us fix our typos:

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