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.
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.