Home / General / Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes

Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes

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Above: A jawbone discovered at a Malaysian human trafficking site

The more one looks into the Obama administration’s reclassification of Malaysia in its human trafficking index, the more disturbed one gets. Malaysia openly engages in widespread human trafficking. This is technically illegal in Malaysia but Kuala Lumpur does nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, the U.S. government does nothing about it in its negotiations with Malaysia because that nation is so key to Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership. The situation has not improved. The Obama administration knows this. And yet its response is to know push for a system that would create meaningful regulations or standards for Malaysia to crack down. The response is simply a meaningless change in classification that does absolutely nothing to fight Malaysian slave labor. I understand that all administrations have to balance a number of morally dubious options at times and make tough choices. But with the TPP, Obama has made decisions that hurts workers on three continents in order to assist American corporations. Both the American and Vietnamese labor movements actively oppose the TPP, while workers without voices such as trafficked labor in Malaysia are completely left powerless through this agreement.

And who are these exploited workers? They are mostly migrants, many from Myanmar and Cambodia and many tribal peoples from around the region who have found their ways undermined by increasingly powerful centralized governments who want to crush their traditional lives. They are often promises jobs in relatively wealthier nations like Malaysia and Thailand and then forced into slavery, where they are often held in cages when they are not working or murdered in lieu of payment.

In the 19th century North, as well as Britain, much of the industrial economy was fueled on slavery in the American South. There, northern industrial investors relied on cotton picked by slave labor in the South. Such a situation was not necessary to expand the northern economy and there were plenty of other labor systems that could have led to cotton entering northern textile mills. But the South was deeply invested in a system of chattel slavery and so long as the money was coming in, many northerners didn’t care. While on a trans-national rather than national scale, this is not so different than the relationship between American companies and southeast Asia today. Several industries rely heavily on trafficked labor. If you are buying frozen shrimp from Walmart, you can pretty much assume slave or extremely exploitative labor systems have produced that in southeast Asia. Yet Walmart does not care. Its executives are the 21st century version of those 19th century pro-slavery industrialists. And the Obama Administration is facilitating the don’t ask don’t tell employment policies of modern capitalism that allow companies like Walmart to take advantage of this human trafficking without having to know too much.

I’m not saying the situations are precisely analogous–obviously there is a big difference between the moral universe of Obama and, say, Franklin Pierce. And there is a difference between chattel slavery as a central feature of the American republic and human trafficking happening in isolated parts of the modern U.S. trade empire. But however he convinced himself to do so, Obama made the decision that he could live with a certain level of human trafficking to get this trade deal passed. And given that said trade deal is terrible for workers at home and abroad, it’s hard to see the moral complexity of that decision. It just seems morally bankrupt. And it makes President Obama complicit with global slavery.

There are Democrats fighting the reclassification of Malaysia for TPP reasons. Robert Menendez is leading this and while I usually have a lot of disdain for Menendez, he’s certainly right on this.

But Menendez and other critics are calling on Congress and the State Department’s inspector general to investigate any move that promotes Malaysia from the lowest level in the U.S. government’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

He said promoting Malaysia would be “a cynical maneuver to get around the clear intent of Congress.”

“They put extra time on the clock for Malaysia to put some promises on paper — we don’t know for sure what they plan to count as progress — instead of taking the time for Malaysia to demonstrate some real action,” Menendez told reporters.

Any undermining of the report is an “incredibly dangerous proposition as it relates to our ability to promote our efforts globally against human trafficking,” he added.

The State Department says the TPP debate won’t affect Malaysia’s grade in the trafficking report.

Oh yeah, I really believe the State Department on this one…. David Dayen:

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the State Department would, at the bidding of the White House, undermine the integrity of a report that shames countries’ indifference to slavery within their borders. But it’s a complete perversion of the logical steps America normally takes to impact other countries’ human rights records. Instead of hitting them with sanctions until they improve — Tier 3 status can lead to withholding of foreign aid — the administration is instead granting Malaysia trade benefits and then hoping for more influence once they’re inside the trading regime. It looks nakedly political, a reward for Malaysia’s involvement in TPP.

Plus, these slaves produce the very goods that would get duty-free access to U.S. markets under the TPP. Forced labor is reportedly high in the agriculture, electronics and textile industries in Malaysia, yet the United States is apparently willing to overlook that to complete the trade deal. So consumers like you and me who unwittingly buy things made in Malaysia could be implicated in the slave trade as well.

Yes it makes sense for Dayen to use the same sort of argument that abolitionists used in the mid-19th century over the implication of everyday consumers in that system of slavery, for our nation has become complicit in a different form of slavery today. Just because that slavery exists far out of our sight does not mean that we aren’t complicit; plus, given media and transportation technologies, we can probably know as many details about modern Malaysia today as the average New Hampshire resident of 1850 could know about Mississippi.

This is the kind of issue that can have some pull with pro-free trade Democrats like Ron Wyden and Patty Murray since they are generally progressive people who do believe in human rights. Is it enough to pull their support away from the TPP? I doubt it, especially since at this point the treaty just need an up or down vote when it is concluded.

Along with his education policy, the Trans Pacific Partnership is the biggest demerit in a progressive evaluation of Obama’s administration. In promoting this policy, he has undermined the American labor movement, made it harder for the world’s population to have access to affordable medicines, undercut workers in the Pacific Basin fighting for their own rights, and reinforced slavery and forced labor in southeast Asia. The corporations are thrilled of course, but Obama has done wrong here, up to the point of being complicit with slavery. Even his greatest defenders must recognize his terrible position on these issues of great moral import.

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  • Aimai

    This is just tragic. I don’t know how to think about it within a framework in which Obama has a consistent personality–because the person who has fought such a valiant fight, with zero reward, such as the ACA and now prison reform, just doesn’t seem to be the person who would sacrifice principle for the TPP. This is one of the few places where I would like to see a scholars account of the negotiations with corporations over this. I just find it hard to square this Obama with all the other Obamas.

    • I think Obama has convinced himself this is good for the world’s workers in the long term. To do that, he has avoided engaging with the actual workers of these countries. That he can say that these people are the problems of other countries no doubt makes it easier.

      But yes, future historians really getting into the details of these decisions will be tremendously valuable. Assuming we still have academic historians in 2040 or so.

      • PotemkinMetropolitanRegion

        Surely he saw the harm of de-industrialization while organizing in Chicago; why on earth does he think it’ll go better this time?

        • Linnaeus

          My guess that he doesn’t think it will go better this time, but rather that deindustrialization happened for a lot of reasons that are beyond our control, the jobs aren’t coming back and so we need to embrace the current paradigm and turn it to American advantage as much as is possible.

          • zhanmusi

            Globalization and the deindustrialization that has accompanied it is not a natural force independent of the policy-framework that promotes it. Cause and effect are mixed up. TPP isn’t a program to deal as best as possible with the results of global multinational corporations inevitable escape from the reach of governments, its a program to deliberately place global multinational corporations beyond the reach of governments.

            • Linnaeus

              I’m not necessarily disputing any of that – I’m just describing how I think the president views it.

              • zhanmusi

                I’d rather try believing six impossible things before breakfast than parse the logic of that view. Signing on to this bad trade deal is inevitable because in the past we signed on to bad trade deals. At least its our bad trade deal. But God help us, the view definitely has its adherents.

                • Ahuitzotl

                  I think it’s fairly simple – Obama put this in the ‘I dont know shit about this, I’ll follow my expert advisors’, and has rolled with that. It’s not like any President gets to hear much from outside his/her* bubble.

                  *I’m sorta hoping

      • dilan

        Erik, I assure you that the Obama Administration has “engaged with the actual workers in these countries”. I know you found one Vietnamese labor group who took the American left-protectionist line on trade policy, but I suspect that within a very short period of time it would be possible on very short notice to find at least a couple of million Chinese workers to talk about how better off they are working for multinationals than when they or their parents were poor and lived and worked in poverty on farms.

        In fact, for a labor historian, you sure don’t seem to realize that EVERY time in human history that people have been given a choice between agricultural poverty and working in even the worst sorts of industrial revolution-style sweatshops, millions of people have CHOSEN the sweatshops. That speaks louder than anything one Vietnamese labor union leader will ever say– if the factories really offered no improvement in the standard of living of the world’s poor, nobody would go work at them.

        I’m sure Obama is quite aware of this, and that his administration engages with workers in the developing world all the time.

        Having said that, I don’t know enough to comment on this specific issue– it’s entirely possible you are right about the classification of Malaysia and the reasons the administration is doing it.

        But the basic problem here is that free trade policies involve two redistributions– from the significantly unionized, high school educated, traditionally highly paid manufacturing workers of the US to some really obnoxious wealthy elites who own and run corporations, and from that same group of US workers to a whole bunch of foreign workers who get a modest but significant improvement in their standard of living while working in horrible working conditions.

        The first one is really bad and is also built into just about everything the US political system does. The second one, though, is really good– it is a huge transfer from the global rich to the global poor. I don’t think Chinese people should have to starve on farms to ensure that comparatively wealthy American workers can keep very high paying jobs.

        (And the sweatshop thing tends to solve itself– compare Japan’s and Taiwan’s factories now to 40 years ago, when US leftists said the same thing about their labor systems that they now say about China’s and Malaysia’s and Bangladesh’s. As the workers get richer in those places, they get more power to push reforms. The only one that really scares me is China, because that regime is repressive enough to stop any sort of worker’s rights movement. I did not agree with Clinton’s move to grant China most favored nation status for that reason. But that ship sailed long ago.)

        • Gregor Sansa

          This is facile reasoning which doesn’t engage with the actual content of the TPP agreement. It’s not “let’s offshore”, it’s more about IP and other legal issues, issues which are anti-worker in Vietnam just as much as here.

        • Murc

          In fact, for a labor historian, you sure don’t seem to realize that EVERY time in human history that people have been given a choice between agricultural poverty and working in even the worst sorts of industrial revolution-style sweatshops, millions of people have CHOSEN the sweatshops.

          Dilan, you keep trotting this one out, and it doesn’t become say what you want it to say just because you keep repeating it.

          Yes, when given the choice between agricultural poverty and industrial poverty, people choose the sweatshops.So what. If I offered you a choice between lopping off your arm and lopping off your head, you would no doubt take the arm option, but that wouldn’t make losing the arm a good option, it would merely make it better than the alternative. That doesn’t make the person offering the choice a good person and it doesn’t make armlessness a good condition to be in.

          But the basic problem here is that free trade policies involve two redistributions– from the significantly unionized, high school educated, traditionally highly paid manufacturing workers of the US to some really obnoxious wealthy elites who own and run corporations, and from that same group of US workers to a whole bunch of foreign workers who get a modest but significant improvement in their standard of living while working in horrible working conditions.

          The first one is really bad and is also built into just about everything the US political system does. The second one, though, is really good

          … no! No, it isn’t really good! People shouldn’t have to work in really horrible working conditions! It is not a necessary condition of global redistribution for that to happen.

          And the sweatshop thing tends to solve itself– compare Japan’s and Taiwan’s factories now to 40 years ago, when US leftists said the same thing about their labor systems that they now say about China’s and Malaysia’s and Bangladesh’s.

          First of all, I’d like to see some cites for this with regard to Japan, as their labor conditions and systems in the postwar period have, to my knowledge, never even approached that of China and Malaysia, ever. I don’t know enough about Taiwan to comment.

          Second of all, this isn’t the problem “solving itself.” Multiple generations of people being murdered by capitalism until their descendants acquire enough power to say “no” isn’t an example of a problem being solved; it is an example of a problem.

          • xq

            Yes, when given the choice between agricultural poverty and industrial poverty, people choose the sweatshops.So what.

            Well, it does have an important implication: if the choice is between offering people industrial poverty or keeping them in agricultural poverty, then you should offer them industrial poverty. Sometimes these are the available options, because we have only limited influence over the world economic system. That there exist hypothetical superior systems is obviously true, but only relevant to the extent that those systems are realistically achievable.

            Sure, ACA is inferior to a single-payer system. But it made millions of people better off. And that’s important.

            • Gregor Sansa

              But sans TPP, there will not be a sudden resurgence of peasant farming. TPP is about how, not whether. And the power choices that are in TPP are not uniformly worse than no deal, but they are worse on net, especially because showing pro-worker movement had the power to sink TPP would have gotten them a seat at the table for next iteration.

              • xq

                Yeah. As you said above, dilan’s original post isn’t that relevant to TPP, and so neither is Murc’s response, and neither is my response to Murc. I don’t know that sinking TPP would have given the pro-worker movement a seat at the table, but it is worth opposing in any case due to absurdly pro-corporate IP protections and ISDS. One can have a generally positive view of globalization and still believe TPP is a bad deal.

        • Brett

          I’ll second Gregor and say this is facile reasoning. For starters, the Chinese workers don’t just file into their factories grateful to have jobs – they like the jobs, but they’re also willing to get out there and protest/strike/etc when conditions are bad or their employers try to cheat them. Both it and prior industrial revolutions were all thesis-and-counterthesis type of situations, where a change provoked a reaction in response to that change, and so forth.

          We’re not talking about turning Chinese or other poor country factories into First World factories. We’re talking about enforcing minimum standards of safety and fairness, the kind of stuff that developing world countries usually agree upon and have written into statutory law even if it’s widely ignored.

        • In fact, for a labor historian, you sure don’t seem to realize

          I wish to remember this for the next time that Dilan trots out his “People should be deferential to actual experts like me” line.

          The fact that his attack on Erik’s expertise is rather ridiculous adds to the charm!

      • Brett

        I think he’s convinced himself that the non-TPP alternative is worse, because it will be defined by Chinese multi-national businesses and policymakers instead. So instead of having bad human and environmental rights policy in a treaty, we’ll end up with no such policies at all and little way for the US to influence them.

    • Anna in PDX

      I have an identical reaction to Aimai. I am very pleased with many recent things Obama has done / said. The prison reform move is really great and an example of where the “bully pulpit” can actually influence discourse and hopefully change the law’n’order narrative for the next election.

      But this cynical and outrageous State Department action that is so clearly tied to the TPP is a horrible travesty and I hope to see a lot of pushback so his administration and State will be embarrassed into giving up.

  • elm

    I wonder how unprecedented it is? I mean, I suspect during the Cold War, US allies were routinely given softer treatment in the State Dept. reports, but have we ever blatantly manipulated the rankings like this before?

    To the extent that the State Dept. reports are a useful tool in fighting human rights abuses (and I don’t know if they are) this kind of this has the potential to seriously undermine their credibility and, thus, their effectiveness.

    • Anna in PDX

      State sponsored terrorism list and human rights lists have historically been pretty controversial and there were times where they were clearly based on who our allies were. (I followed this during the 5 years from 92-98 when I was in the Foreign Service.)

  • dp

    I’d add the lack of Wall Street/white collar & Bush administration prosecutions as another serious failing of our current president.

    This is simply terrible.

  • Gregor Sansa

    You know what this depressing thead on a serious topic needs? A dkos-style pie fight.

    I’ll start:

    1. Can you imagine Clinton being any better on this issue? Seriously?
    2. Sanders’s passionate support makes him a better candidate for the general election than Clinton.
    3. Because of 2, there is no downside to going all-in on Sanders now.
    4. Because of 3, Sanders is not a longshot.

    (I actually believe 1-3.)

    Bonus off-topic factoid: Sanders co-sponsored a bill enabling proportional representation in 2001. I supported him before I knew that, but now I’m in love.

    • Linnaeus

      Throw in something about Freddie DeBoer while we’re at it. That’ll get 100+ comments easy.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        I sometimes wonder if the play he gets here is the reason DeBoer thinks he’s someone to be reckoned with

      • Gregor Sansa

        I heard DeBoer says that Ron Paul is a better leftist than Bernie Sanders irl.

        • Aimai

          I saw Freddie making babies inthe closet with Ron Paul and he looked at me.

          • IM

            Ron Paul just rejected the Iran deal.

            Larison declared any Paul hope over. I wonder how Greenwald and Freddie will keep the dream alive.

          • MeDrewNotYou

            I saw Freddie making babies in the closet with Ron Paul and Ron Paul had a baby and the baby looked at me!

            (It was Ralph Wiggum that added the actual baby, wasn’t it?)

    • IM

      1. No.

      2. No.

      3. No.

      4. No.

      • Gregor Sansa

        I actually agree on 1 and 4. On 2, I won’t argue. But what is your logic for 3?

        • IM

          3. Because of 2, there is no downside to going all-in on Sanders now.

          If he isn’t a better general electuion candidate, it would be a waste of resources. Beter to spend on say, down the tieckt candidates.

          I think there should be just enough invested in Sanders so that he can still beinvietd to debates and represent the left. Not more.

          • Gregor Sansa

            So in your opinion is it worth voting for Sanders in the primary?

            I can understand you thinking that Clinton’s better familiarity and maybe foreign relations cred makes her a better candidate personally. But in terms of coattails, there’s no question that Sanders has the potential to inspire more hard-core enthusiasm and also, I’d argue, less hard-core opposition. (Not to put too fine a point on it, “gotta vote against the benghazi bitch” resonates more than “gotta vote against the wispy-haired commie”). So if you’re worried about downticket effects, I can see not wasting volunteer energy on Sanders in primary season (because you think he has no chance… again, I won’t argue with that), but I still think he’s worth a vote.

            • NonyNony

              (Not to put too fine a point on it, “gotta vote against the benghazi bitch” resonates more than “gotta vote against the wispy-haired commie”)

              If you believe this then you either have not been paying attention to American politics for the last decade or you’ve been taking away the wrong lessons.

              There are NO DEMOCRATS who will not generate MAXIMUM HATEFEST RESPONSE from Republicans before, during and following an election. Zero. Nada. None. Not a sausage.

              The hate spewed out for John Kerry in 04 by the purple bandage crowd should have disabused everyone of the notion that you could run a rich white guy Democrat and not get the HATECANNON response. It does not matter who the Democrats nominate – they could nominate Jim Webb and the response from Republicans would be the same. Hell they could dig up Ronald Reagan’s corpse and run Zombie Reagan and the hate would spew readily.

              Do not concern yourself with the response from Republicans – it should NEVER enter into your calculations. If it is, you are assuming the defensive crouch from the get-go. And when Democrats start campaigning from the defensive crouch they lose.

              • jim, some guy in iowa

                I pretty much agree with this. I’d also point out that H Clinton was able to inspire some pretty hard-core support of her own back in ’08. If Sanders is the candidate closest to what you want, fine- but don’t kid yourself that he doesn’t have weaknesses of his own or that Clinton hasn’t got some real strengths

                • NonyNony

                  I agree.

                  I will probably be voting for Sanders purely to register my agreement with his policy prescriptions. But I know a lot of people in the real world who are very excited to be voting for Hillary Clinton. Her polling numbers are not lying – she has a rock solid fanbase and it took a once-in-a-generation campaigner to pull her down in ’08.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Ok, I see what you’re saying. But to continue the discussion, in the spirit of devil’s advocate:

                  They hate democrats. Some of the ingredients of that hate are sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, hatriotism, and mob mentality. It is neither desirable nor possible to find a candidate with no attributes which trigger that hate.

                  My real point about Sanders is that, for a non-hateful Republican (and yes, despite Fox’s sincere efforts, those still exist) he says things that they are inclined to nod at. In that sense, his difference from Clinton is not so much gender as class markers. I think he’s also a better speaker, because he sounds less like a politician.

                  How could that matter? Aren’t Republicans every-election voters, so that “he isn’t that bad” isn’t enough to get them not to still vote R? Maybe. But I do think he has some strengths that Clinton doesn’t, and I don’t think I’m just falling in to the “silent majority is just like me” fallacy.

              • Bruce B.

                Agreed. No Democrat is acceptable to them, and every Democrat will be portrayed as all forms of liberal evil, regardless of who they are. So there’s no point in trying to placate them.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Oh, he supported PR? well in that case, Clinton alll the way!!!

  • Timurid

    I’m not endorsing this by any means, but I’m guessing that the thought process behind the policy goes something like this:

    1. Ongoing structural changes like increasing inequality, growing labor surpluses and the contraction of the American middle class are inevitable and irreversible. The best that we can do (in contrast to Republican/neoliberal policy) is ensure a level playing field in the competition for the few remaining places in the middle class and offer some aid and comfort to the losers.

    2. It’s only fair if middle classes in America and elsewhere in the West have to shrink to enable the expansion of middle classes in the developing world (even if that process ends up being a messy, generations-long slog that needlessly repeats many of the mistakes of the original Industrial Revolution).

    3. TPP and similar agreements give us a degree of control and an ability to manage the process and its consequences.

    • Gregor Sansa

      4. I really want to find an issue where I can honestly work with Republicans, because otherwise all that work I’ve done being reasonable would have been wasted. I’d hoped it would be Keystone, but that’s a dud.

      • Matt McIrvin

        For a brief moment they had an opportunity to go all-in on pot legalization and outflank the Democrats, but I think they missed the train.

      • Joe_JP

        5. Said issue here matches my long held economic positions, which various people around here find sadly deluded in some fashion.

        … and yes, I’ll get accomplished what I can.

    • dilan

      I suspect all of those things are true (although what you call the “mistakes of the Industrial Revolution” are actually inevitable– the thing that gives poor countries a comparative advantage to build factories in the first place are lower wages and poorer working conditions; that’s really all they can offer in many countries).

      And on 3, I remember talking to a Clinton Administration labor official (in Robert Reich’s Department of Labor!) in the 1990’s, who told me that much of the appeal of trade agreements was PRECISELY that they were seen as a form of global governance, which has been a goal of many liberals in politics (and the bane of many conservatives) for generations. The idea is you set up these institutions, get them accepted, and they will eventually see their jurisdiction broaden to where they can enforce labor and environmental standards. That was a very serious strain of thought during the Clinton Administration (and Obama may share that view).

      • Gregor Sansa

        That logic is working out really well in Europe.

        • sonamib

          Europe is indeed exhibit A for the failed strategy of “let’s throw right-wing economic voodoo at the heart of our union, I’m sure it will work out”.

      • Rob in CT

        The idea is you set up these institutions, get them accepted, and they will eventually see their jurisdiction broaden to where they can enforce labor and environmental standards. That was a very serious strain of thought during the Clinton Administration (and Obama may share that view).

        Hmm. That’s appealing, but it seems to require taking quite a bit on faith.

        • elm

          And given that GATT/WTO has not evolved to take on that role after over 60 years nor NAFTA after 20 suggests that the evidence is against the position. I guess the EU evolved to include environment and labor as part of its jurisdiction, but that was a vastly different project from the start and unless there are things in the TPP treaty no one is anticipating, it’d be pretty silly to compare the two.

      • Murc

        although what you call the “mistakes of the Industrial Revolution” are actually inevitable

        No.

        They are not.

        They are also not mistakes.

        They are the result of deliberately evil choices made by deliberately evil people with clear policy goals in mind. Different choices can be made.

  • Bruce B.

    This was really hard to read. But as important as hard. Thanks, Erik, for writing it up.

  • ExpatChad

    As a nearby neighbor of Malaysia, I think that US trust or involvement with either Indonesia or Malaysia on ANY level will be a disaster. Our news here is filled with stuff you never hear about in the west.

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