Is the TPP Okay With Slavery? Really?

05/28/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

So the fast track plan to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership has run into a new wrinkle after an amendment passed in the Senate debate: slavery. Yes, really, slavery: the Senate voted for an amendment that would make it more difficult for countries that engage in slavery to be in the TPP, and the Obama administration objected. This is bizarre stuff, folks, but welcome to the world of international trade deals. From Ryan Grim's article the day Fast Track was passed, about the amendment in question:

 That measure would bar governments considered to be complicit in human trafficking from receiving the economic benefits of a fast-tracked trade deal. Menendez, the author of the provision, has described it as a human rights protection that will prevent U.S. workers from competing with modern-day slave labor.

The administration has pushed against the provision, saying it would prevent Malaysia from participating in the deal, and eliminate incentives for the country to upgrade its human trafficking enforcement. Human rights advocates strongly support the language that passed the Senate on Friday.

The president argues that if the U.S. doesn't cut deals with these partner countries, China will, to U.S. disadvantage.

The State Department's human trafficking analysis of Malaysia describes the country as "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."

The department cites forced labor problems in Malaysia's palm oil industry, and nonprofit groups have noted similar abuses in the Malaysian electronics industry. The State Department report says Malaysian 'public officials... may profit from trafficking.'

The President does not want an anti-slavery provision in what he calls the "most progressive trade deal of all time" because it would keep a country noted for its egregious slave trade out of the treaty? I have to admit this bothers me just a little. Okay, a massive amount. We're not going to object to slavery because a country that openly engages in it might trade more with China than with us? Doesn't this kind of blow up the whole "most progressive trade agreement in history" thing?

We have imposed trade embargoes on all kinds of countries, for sometimes several decades, for all kinds of reasons. We currently have a trade embargo with Iran because they might someday build a nuclear bomb. It strikes me that openly allowing slavery qualifies as a reason not to trade with a country. In the case of Malaysia, we're not even talking about a trade embargo: We're talking about not including them in a free trade deal. But this truly stunning issue, that is causing the administration such concern because it might blow up the TPP, isn't even the only country that there are these kinds of issues in where we are doing nothing to protect basic human and labor rights in spite of having trade deals with them.

Two countries, especially remarkable to me in terms of the U.S.A. doing nothing about enforcing trade agreements, are Qatar and UAE. Both countries outlaw labor unions. Both countries have severe problems with human trafficking and slavery. Both have extremely discriminatory laws against both women and LGBT people -- as a matter of fact, UAE makes the "crime" of homosexuality punishable by death. According to the U.S. State Department, Qatar is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of human trafficking and slavery abuses, including well-documented reports of enslaved migrant workers dying at the rate of one every other day in 2014 during the construction of the World Cup infrastructure. UAE withholds the passports of migrant workers so they can't escape the dreadful conditions they are forced to live in -- including living 15 to a small room and being forced to work over 80 hours a week. Both countries discriminate in the extreme against women, in the workforce and in their personal lives. There have been women jailed for "illicit sex" after being gang raped, and other women arrested for drinking before being raped. Women are fired by these countries' state owned airlines for being pregnant or getting married, and are forced to live in company housing

The list of human rights and labor rights abuses that have been described by journalists and documented by the U.S. State Department goes on and on. And yet, these countries are members of the WTO and the GATT, big international trade organizations that are supposed to create a level playing field for trade. They are both big trading partners of the U.S.A. in general. They are involved in a special trade agreement with us and some other countries that are supposed to guarantee an equal playing field for airlines around the world called the Open Skies Agreements (agreements, by the way, that Qatar and UAE both blatantly violate with massive subsidies of their state owned airlines). They even get subsidies from our country's Export-Import Bank. These countries economic ties to the U.S.A. are deep and substantial. Yet, they are among the worst countries in the world in terms of trafficking and slavery, and they discriminate horribly against women and LGBT people. The UAE has the death penalty for homosexuality and arrests women who get gang raped.

Our country's values, beyond just the value of a dollar, should be represented in our economic relations and trade agreements with other countries. The trade agreements we sign should be enforced. And new trade agreements like the TPP should not be entered into if we have to ignore issues like slavery and abuse of workers. It is time to start paying attention to something beyond the rights of multinational companies to make money.