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July 01, 2015

What to Look For in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report

In the upcoming weeks, the State Department will unveil its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. Released every year since 2001, it’s intended to be a diplomatic tool for the U.S. government to use when engaging countries on the issue. The report evaluates the efforts of almost 200 countries to “comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and rates them on a tier system, from best to worse: 1, 2, 2-Watch List, or 3.

Two findings will be particularly telling. First, the number of prosecutions globally will indicate whether countries are making progress holding perpetrators accountable for what is both a horrific human rights problem and the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. Second, the report will provide information on trade relations between the United States and Tier 3 countries, those with the worst records on trafficking.

Recent passage of trade promotion authority or “fast-track” for President Obama to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact—which would include Malaysia—highlights how the United States can use trade to either enable, or combat, trafficking. After being on the Tier 2-WL from 2010-2013, Malaysia was downgraded to Tier 3 in the 2014 report because for four years it had  demonstrated no progress and, in fact, anti-trafficking efforts had decreased in 2013.

While Malaysia’s anti-trafficking efforts have declined, U.S. trade with Malaysia has steadily increased. Malaysia is the United States’ 20th largest trade partner and 17th largest supplier of imported goods. In 2013 the United States imported from Malaysia $14.8 billion worth of electronics and $1.1 billion of palm oil, which are both on the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor and Forced Labor. By importing these products, the United States is indirectly enabling slavery.

The U.S. government should ensure that the trade agreement includes provisions that press Malaysia and all trade partners to improve their anti-trafficking policies and practices and follow up with strong accountability measures. While prosecutions globally have increased over the past four years from 6,017 to 9,460, this is not a sufficient deterrent. It is estimated that there are almost 21 million victims of slavery today, generating $150 billion in profits for traffickers. We must change the risk-reward equation; the U.S. government should use its trade partnerships to require countries to increase prosecutions and otherwise crack down on trafficking.  

It will also be important to examine whether the 2015 TIP Report reflects reality, or politics. In the past, countries with strong ties to the United States have received lenient rankings. For example, since 2011 India, the United States’ 11th largest trade partner, has been ranked Tier 2, indicating that the government is making significant efforts to eliminate trafficking. But India is estimated to have a significant portion of the total 21 million estimated victims worldwide. If the State Department upgrades Malaysia to Tier 2 just to benefit trade negotiations, it could contribute to human trafficking.

Access to American markets is an effective incentive to press trade partners for action. It’s essential that the United States use its influence to disrupt the business of trafficking.