Gaius Publius: Slave Trafficking, TPP & the 2016 Presidential Contest

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By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.


This could be someone you know and love (source). How aggressively should your presidential candidate work to prevent it?

As many readers know, I’m a fan of what the game of Go calls a “strong move” — very aggressive play when the position is favorable. The position against TPP, the argument against, is beyond favorable, and the position against Malaysia, one of the world’s worst participants in the traffic in slaves, is unassailable. In addition, for the 2016 race, progressives have three candidates who have announced their opposition.

In this presidential season, I think progressives have been handed a wonderful opportunity to make a “strong move” against both TPP and slave trafficking — but only if they’re willing to take it.

In this piece, I want to look at the slave trade and Malaysia, then at TPP, both pre-vote and post-vote, and last at what a truly committed Democratic candidate might say in one of the coming debates. (To jump to that speech, scroll to the bottom or click here.)

“Human Trafficking” Means the Slave Trade in All Its Forms

The term “human trafficking” is accurate, but almost a white-wash in that it washes off the ears with little penetration of its meaning. Human trafficking is best called “slave trading.” What are slaves? Humans used as animals, as things for any purpose, including, but not only:

That list is just a subset. Any Jack Reacher–villain method by which a human, including a child, can be kept powerless for the purpose of abuse is encompassed by the term slave trading. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the ban against exploitation of humans:

Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal, manipulation or implantation of organs;

The “trader” makes his or her money capturing or selling slaves, the way Nestlé, say, makes money “capturing” water from the people of the Pacific Northwest, then selling it back to the people who own it in the first place. Water is a product to profit from. Slaves are a product to profit from. How can we improve the bottom line by improving the “throughput,” these profiteers ask?

Imagine your child treated this way, as a profit center and “throughput.” Now imagine your anger against it. Now hold that thought as you consider Malaysia and TPP. Malaysia is a nation in which slave trading is a major industry.

In 2014, the State Department Gave Malaysia an “F” for its Extensive Human Trafficking

Back in 2014, before Fast Track and TPP were part of the national discussion, the nation of Malaysia received an “F” from the U.S. State Department (technically, they assigned Malaysia “Tier 3” status) for its extremely lax enforcement of laws against trading in slaves.

The Guardian (my emphasis):

US penalises Malaysia for shameful human trafficking record

Continued failure to curb traffickers prompts US to downgrade Malaysia in its annual Trafficking in Persons report

The US has downgraded Malaysia to the lowest ranking in its annual human trafficking report, relegating the southeast Asian nation to the same category as Zimbabwe, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. The move could result in economic sanctions and loss of development aid.

Malaysia’s relegation to tier 3 in the US state department’s Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report – published on Friday – indicates that the country has categorically failed to comply with the most basic international requirements to prevent trafficking and protect victims within its borders.

Human rights activists in Malaysia and abroad welcomed the downgrade as proof of the government’s lax law enforcement, and lack of political will, in the face of continued NGO and media reports on trafficking and slavery.

“Malaysia is not serious about curbing human trafficking at all,” said Aegile Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, a local charity that works directly with trafficking victims.

“The order of the day is profits and corruption. Malaysia protects businesses, employers and agents [not victims] – it is easier to arrest, detain, charge and deport the migrant workers so that you protect employers and businesses.”

According to this year’s TiP report – which ranks 188 nations according to their willingness and efforts to combat trafficking, and is considered the benchmark index for global anti-trafficking commitments – trafficking victims are thought to comprise the vast majority of Malaysia’s estimated 2 million illegal migrant labourers, who are sent to work in the agriculture, construction, sex, textile or domestic labour industries.

Just read the bolded parts again. The government of Malaysia, our TPP partner, is a major participant in the market for slaves. According to our own State Department.

But that was then, before the push to “fast track” trade deals that the most corrupt members of both political parties wanted to give to their richest benefactors. Here’s what’s happened since.

“Senior Political Staff” in the State Department Recertified Malaysia as Fit for TPP

The State Department issued the above report in 2014. In 2015 Obama and the wealth-serving members of both political parties wanted to pass Fast Track, a law that would make it much more difficult for Congress to reject any “trade” deal, or any deal labeled a trade deal for the next three to six years. One obstacle to passing Fast Track was congressional opposition to the slave trade in Malaysia, one of our TPP “partners.”

The pro-TPP forces in and out of government desperately wanted to keep Malaysia in the deal, for a variety of reasons. So “senior political staff” in the State Department conveniently amended the department’s 2014 decision.

Reuters (my emphasis):

Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking report

In the weeks leading up to a critical annual U.S. report on human trafficking that publicly shames the world’s worst offenders, human rights experts at the State Department concluded that trafficking conditions hadn’t improved in Malaysia and Cuba. And in China, they found, things had grown worse.

The State Department’s senior political staff saw it differently — and they prevailed.

A Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals, shows that the government office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior American diplomats and pressured into inflating assessments of 14 strategically important countries in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report.

In all, analysts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons – or J/TIP, as it’s known within the U.S. government — disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries, the sources said.

The analysts, who are specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern slavery – such as the illegal trade in humans for forced labor or prostitution – won only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the 15-year history of the unit, according to the sources.

As a result, not only Malaysia, Cuba and China, but countries such as India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, wound up with better grades than the State Department’s human-rights experts wanted to give them, the sources said. (Graphic looking at some of the key decisions here:

Note that the experts in the State Dept. didn’t re-evaluate the data. The political forces at State overruled those experts, for reasons you can easily guess. In the case of Malaysia, Reuters says this:

The Malaysian upgrade, which was highly criticized by human rights groups, could smooth the way for an ambitious proposed U.S.-led free-trade deal [TPP] with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.

Reuters certainly knows how to put two and two together. Will our Democratic political candidates do the same?

Which Presidential Candidate Will Stand Strongest Against TPP & Human Trafficking in Malaysia?

Which brings us to TPP and this political season. One of the big issues for progressives is to elect the most progressive president we can find. Another is to defeat TPP in Congress. A third — have you thought of this? — is to neuter TPP even if it passes Congress and Obama signs it.

After all, TPP is just an “executive agreement.” It’s not a “treaty” as the Constitution understand the term. It’s not ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, but simply signed by the president, often with a concurring vote of Congress. (A Status of Forces Agreement, for example, is “[t]ypically established by executive agreement.”) Even our actual treaties, such as the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against torture, are often simply ignored. Do we stop fighting a bad deal simply because it was signed? Or do we keep fighting? And what do we expect in that regard from our best candidates?

These three problems — how to elect the most progressive president, how to stop TPP from being passed by Congress, how to prevent TPP from taking effect if it is approved by Congress — come conveniently together in this presidential season, and in particular, in the upcoming. presidential debates.

This is another of my imagined progressive-candidate speeches, laid out as talking points in the candidate’s voice. Imagine the horror that millions of human slaves in Malaysia go through every day. Imagine your child as one of them. Then imagine your reaction to a presidential candidate who says this, out loud, in front of millions of TV viewers:

The moderator has asked each of us our views on TPP. Here’s what I say to the American people:

  • I know that most Americans, including 87% of Republicans, opposed giving Fast Track authority to the president. I know that almost every labor leader in the country is opposed to TPP, knowing that it would do to jobs what NAFTA did to jobs … and do a whole lot worse besides, such as putting life-saving cancer drug prices out of reach of most people who need them.
  • Therefore, if TPP passes and I’m elected president, I will:

        1. Explore every avenue for “unsigning” — or at the very least, renegotiating — this agreement. Remember, by design this is not a “treaty,” but an “executive agreement”. Executive agreements, such as agreements to maintain troops in foreign countries, have been changed unilaterally in the past.

        2. Make sure that every side agreement that offers protections to labor and the environment is aggressively enforced against all signing countries. I repeat … aggressively enforced. Every single one of them. If a signing country is forced out of TPP because they violate these side agreements, so be it.

        These assurances regarding labor and the environment may have been meant cosmetically in the past, but not under my administration. I repeat, if a nation is forced out of TPP because of labor or environmental violations, they will be gone and I will be glad to see them go. The less force TPP has, the better, in my view and in the view of the American people.

        3. Finally — and I take this most seriously — there is strong evidence that the country of Malaysia is a major and deliberate participant in the horrifying practice of human trafficking. I mean horrifying in its most literal sense. Our own State Department, in 2014, certified Malaysia as a participant in the global market for slaves — sexual slaves, workforce slaves, humans who are imprisoned so their organs can be harvested. Men, women, and children.

        One source says, about this report, and I’m quoting here: “trafficking victims are thought to comprise the vast majority of Malaysia’s estimated 2 million illegal migrant labourers, who are sent to work in the agriculture, construction, sex, textile or domestic labour industries.” This is beyond immoral. It is monstrous. And it must be stopped.

        The U.S. State Department said as much in a report on human trafficking in June of 2014. Yet in late July of 2015, the State Department reversed itself and removed Malaysia from the list of “Tier 3” human traffickers, the worst offenders.

        This allowed Malaysia to remain in the negotiations for TPP. If I am your president, on day one I will order the State Department to immediately review that decision, with an eye to immediately reversing that decision and driving Malaysia from the TPP until it genuinely … not cosmetically, but genuinely … changes its laws and cracks down on this most monstrous of practices … the trafficking in slaves, humans treated like animals, as things to be used.

  • Further, I challenge every candidate on this stage, most of whom oppose the TPP, to take these same aggressive stands. If we are strongly opposed to TPP and what it will do to jobs and the American economy — and especially if we are opposed to the slave trade in Malaysia — we must opposed it, not just before it passes, but after it passes, if indeed it does pass.

Consider again our three goals:

  • Elect the most progressive president we can find.
  • Defeat TPP in Congress.
  • Prevent it from taking effect if Congress does pass it.

Now imagine someone you love as a victim of human trafficking in Malaysia.

If you are on board with all three goals — and share the revulsion any human would feel toward a business model that treats humans as things — how would you feel about the presidential candidate who gave the speech above?

But there’s more to this “strong move.” How would our current trading “partners” feel about TPP if they heard this speech given, ahead of the Congressional vote?

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  1. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for a thoughtful post that among other things reflects the values of the American people regarding human rights, Gaius. It seems this administration is going to ignore strong public opposition to their corporate-appointed dispute settlement panels and other clauses in this secret document that have to date been leaked but not been made public.

    Another reader here also mentioned the other day that this document (together with any side agreements) is NOT a treaty, but an executive agreement, and that, like all their other so called “trade agreements”, it is not the law of the land and if passed it can be quickly reversed by a subsequent administration. Issues like ignoring human trafficking, together with the agreement’s “regulatory consistency” and other terms, are more than sufficient basis to oppose this travesty posing as a “trade” agreement.

    Appreciated your analogy to a move in the game “Go”.

  2. Pepsi

    This is authoritarian capitalism’s implicit made explicit. This is the ideology of naked power, and if we don’t fight it, we all become its subjects.

  3. Carla

    Please, people, as long as you believe that Democrats or the Democrat Party stand for anything other than neo-liberal criminality, you’re setting yourselves up.

    If Obama did not prove that to you, his life has been wasted. Wake up!

    1. Vatch

      Not all Democrats are as you describe, but yes, all or most of the leaders are. The same is true, probably more so, of the Republicans. Yet we’re stuck with the ugly reality that most elections are won (at all levels) by either a Republican or a Democrat. So what are we to do? Gaius says:

      Consider again our three goals:

      Elect the most progressive president we can find.
      Defeat TPP in Congress.
      Prevent it from taking effect if Congress does pass it.

      If he’s right about the first item, then we must work to nominate the best candidates possible in the Democratic and Republican parties. If both nominees turn out to be corporatist fronts, then we have to vote for a third party candidate. But if one of the candidates of the two major parties is a clear opponent of the corporatist agenda, such as Bernie Sanders, then that candidate should be supported in the general election.

      The Democratic Party is bad, but it is not universally bad. There are exceptions.

      1. Carla

        I’m sorry, Vatch. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s a probability that after Bernie has lured progressives back to the Democrat fold, he will yield to Hillary and bow out. And it seems that the only Republicans who at all reliably oppose the TPP are Tea Partiers. Are you really going to be able to vote for one or more members of that nascent Third Party?

        1. Vatch

          If Hillary is the Democratic candidate, I won’t vote for her. I can’t see myself voting for any of the current Republican candidates. But Hillary hasn’t been nominated, at least not yet. Unless or until that happens, I see no reason to completely reject the Democratic party. For now, I support Sanders. We know he’s different from Obama, because we have two and a half decades of Congressional roll call votes that show where Sanders stood on a plethora of issues. We didn’t have that for Obama in 2008, and he made fools of many of us (myself included). I voted third party in 2012.

        2. different clue

          If Sanders went to the convention with more eLECted delegates than Clinton, why would Sanders bow out? What is your theory for predicting that?

          1. hunkerdown

            The Party, being a private corporation, is not bound to consider any votes from anyone outside the firm. (See also IETF RFC 1925, section 3.6: roughly, “It is always easier to move the problem from one part of the network infrastructure to another than fix it. (Corollary: it is always possible to add a level of indirection.)”)

            1. different clue

              That doesn’t mean Sanders has to “bow out”. He can make them remove him by hook and by crook before God AND CSPAN.

  4. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan

    Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal, manipulation or implantation of organs;

    Given that this accurately describes any commercial prison in the USA, I’m not at all surprised that the report was watered down in the USA.

    1. washunate

      Yep. There are more slaves in the world today than in the 19th century. And just like then, many Democrats rather like a tightly controlled labor force.

  5. different clue

    I wonder how many Tea Partiers and other Obama haters might object to human trafficking. Then too, I wonder how many of them might gleefully pounce on Obama’s support of it as another example of Liberal Hypocrisy in Action. That is a popular game over on the Breitbart side of things. If that could be offered as hi-valu fodder for the Obama-hating Right, I think the Tea Partiers and the Breitbartians will make more of an issue out of this than the weawy weawy wadical pwogwessives and Obama’s tribal-loyalty race-card-based Amen Corner.

    1. Gaius Publius

      If that could be offered as hi-valu fodder for the Obama-hating Right, I think the Tea Partiers and the Breitbartians will make more of an issue out of this than the weawy weawy wadical pwogwessives and Obama’s tribal-loyalty race-card-based Amen Corner.

      Very true. That’s actually why I offer the Malaysia information for consideration, different clue. There are a lot of reasons to hate TPP, including its death-for-profit drug scheme. But this one, slavery in Malaysia, has interesting across-the-aisle appeal.

      The Senate is a lost cause for TPP. Thanks to the Democrats who enabled Fast Track (including Chuck Schumer), only 51 votes are needed and there are 54 Republicans. So no Democrat need dirty her hands voting Yes on something she really wants. Even Cantwell and Patty Murray can pretend not to like it (though Wyden better vote Yes to save face, to prove he’s true to his own idiot ideas).

      But in the House there’s maybe a 50-50 shot. The 28 Democratic TPP voters (who showed themselves twice in the Fast Track voting) may not add to their numbers. That leaves (if my math is right) 172 No votes from Democrats. If the House is at full strength and everyone votes, 218 votes are needed either way to determine the outcome. Meaning, something like 46 Republican No votes could sink this.

      I’m willing to tell the truth to each Republican House member (as above) and let her or him say any darn thing about it they want, so long as they vote No.

      Anyone know a House Republican who needs to know about a “certain someone” ironically enabling slavery in Malaysia so he can retire well? Anyone here have posting privileges at certain right-leaning sites, so those fine folks can learn what’s likely flown under their radars? (Just a thought.)


      1. Vatch

        Didn’t these 5 Republican Senators vote against fast track (HR 2146)? That doesn’t guarantee that they will vote against the TPP, but they might.

        Collins (R-ME)
        Cruz (R-TX)
        Paul (R-KY)
        Sessions (R-AL)
        Shelby (R-AL)

        These two did not vote:

        Lee (R-UT)
        Rubio (R-FL)

        1. Gaius Publius

          Good point, vatch. Here’s a link to the final roll call vote.

          Here’s part of what I wrote at the time:

          On the Democratic side, because three senators didn’t show up to vote, the pro-TPP forces needed 13 Democrats to join with Republicans to defeat the filibuster. And surprise — 13 Democrats showed up:

          • Michael Bennet (D-CO)
          • Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
          • Tom Carper (D-DE)
          • Chris Coons (D-DE)
          • Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
          • Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
          • Tim Kaine (D-VA)
          • Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
          • Patty Murray (D-WA)
          • Bill Nelson (D-FL)
          • Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
          • Mark Warner (D-VA)
          • Ron Wyden (D-OR)

          There’s actually a 14th pro-TPP Democrat who was too afraid to vote until the 60th vote was cast:

          •  Ben Cardin (MD)

          You should include Schumer as well, who was a secret enabler, like Pelosi.

          Of the five Republicans you mentioned, Collins almost always caves. Sessions may be a firm No. I’m not sure about Shelby. The presidential candidates will follow either their paymasters or the base, which means maybe Cruz is a No and the others are Yes.

          Three Republican defections from 54 yields 51 Yes votes.

          If more Republicans vote No, there are more than enough Democrats who will be proud to vote Yes to fill a void. Again, only 51 votes are needed, so all of them may be able to keep their fingerprints off it. But you’re right; a few Republicans will defect.


          1. John Zelnicker

            I think Shelby will continue to vote No with his buddy Sessions. This is the only issue where I have been on the same side as my 2 senators. I’m actually quite surprised that they are opposing it, although Sessions has picked up on the worst aspect of the deal, the loss of sovereignty to the ISDS panels. I hope he continues to push hard on that issue.

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