At the end of last month, Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), better known as “fast track” for various trade agreements, was approved after a series of back and forth procedural moves by Congress. This means that Congress no longer has the (Constitutionally-provided) power to have a say in the trade deals the administration is creating, other than a single up-or-down vote when everything is set in stone. There was, however, one tiny poison pill that Senator Bob Menendez supposedly hid in the TPA concerning the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. And that was that it could not be used if the trade agreement included countries that were listed as a “tier 3 nation” by the State Department when it comes to human rights violations. Malaysia, one of the countries that is a part of the TPP, has been designated a “tier 3 nation” by the State Department for a while now, due to serious human trafficking problems.
Some trade deal supporters in Congress tried to quietly remove this provision, but failed. And that left a big Malaysia-shaped problem in front of the TPP. But, the Obama administration is nothing if not resourceful in trying to make sure the TPP gets approved and big corporations get their expanded power over national governments around the globe.
It just decided to upgrade Malaysia from a tier 3 country to a tier 2 country. Because it could. Not because of anything done by Malaysia to improve its record on human trafficking. But because it was politically necessary. The details are simply nauseating:
There is essentially zero evidence Malaysia has done anything to earn this reclassification. Just two months ago, police found 139 mass graves along the Malaysian border that contained migrant workers that had been trafficked or held for ransom.
Since the 2014 TIP report, Malaysia has actually convicted fewer smugglers. As recently as mid-April, the US ambassador to Malaysia publicly criticized the government there for not doing more to combat trafficking.
Also sketchy: the State Department’s report was actually due out last month, but was mysteriously delayed until after the whole mess with fast track was concluded. It’s almost like the State Department chose to wait until it saw whether or not this provision was included to determine what Malaysia’s status would be.
And if you want further evidence that this late decision to magically upgrade Malaysia to tier 2 wasn’t in the cards originally, how about this:
Menendez’s office said Friday that an interim report was delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March on Tier 2 countries only, and Malaysia was not included.
In short, the State Department does not really think that Malaysia has improved its terrible record on human trafficking. It did not think so in March when it released an interim report. And then it made the political decision to hold off on releasing its June report until the middle of July to see how the fast track path proceeded.
Finally, rather than take this tool and use it force Malaysia to actually improve things, it gave the country a total free pass, just for the sake of finalizing TPP. I don’t care where you stand on the various other provisions of the TPP, but this sort of cynical move — where real lives are at stake — is horrifying. And it shows the “who gives a fuck, get it done” attitude of our government right now. This isn’t a theoretical issue. This is one where it’s clear that people right now are being harmed, and rather than do anything about it, the government has deliberately chosen to turn a blind eye to the problem just so it can get this questionable trade deal passed.
This, of course, also is likely to confirm the fears of many who were opposed to the TPP all along. The Obama administration and US Trade Rep Michael Froman keep insisting that the TPP has a number of features to help raise labor standards in various countries. Yet, if they’re happily willing to not just look the other way over Malaysia’s human trafficking, but to actively whitewash it, what does that say for the seriousness with which it will enforce any labor practice rules?