Fairer Trade

Making the TPP Support Better Labor Laws

Labourers work at a garment factory in Bac Giang province, near Hanoi October 21, 2015.  Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters

Malaysia’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement has given human rights advocates cause for concern. Until last year, the U.S. State Department classified the country as a Tier 3 violator of human rights in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). That ranking situated Malaysia among the world’s worst offenders and would have prevented Washington from fast-tracking the TPP’s ratification due to recent federal law. And so, when the State Department suddenly upgraded Malaysia to Tier 2 Watch List status in 2015, which let Washington move forward with the fast track, human rights groups suggested that foreign and trade policy concerns were behind the change. 

If the allegations are true, it is discouraging that Washington has softened its stance on Malaysian human rights violations. There is still reason to hope, however, that the United States could leverage Kuala Lumpur into improving its labor conditions through trade. If Washington ratifies the TPP, the treaty’s side agreements with member nations, including Malaysia, would encourage countries to adhere to international standards on forced labor. Perhaps more important, the recent move to close a loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930 has empowered domestic agencies to further prevent goods made with forced labor from entering the United States. This change may represent a promising way to ensure that Malaysia and other countries abide by their commitments.


Malaysia’s track record on human trafficking and forced labor is poor at best, but the TPP will create a new opportunity for Washington to promote change. The TPP includes a chapter on labor protections that requires its signatories to enforce the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which prohibits the use of forced and child labor. The agreement also includes a new trade standard that requires all signatories to “discourage […] the importation of goods from other sources produced in whole or in part by forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory child labor.” But for these

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