Obama Administration grants unwarranted TIP Upgrades

The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) is a potent annual assessment of governments’ efforts to combat human trafficking that subjects the worst offenders to sanctions. At its best, it provides human rights organizations, unions, and others committed to the fight against human trafficking with a tool to hold governments accountable for their efforts to prevent this egregious crime, protect its victims and prosecute the offenders. It is designed to be a balanced standard against which all governments, including the United States, can be judged on their progress on this one issue of vital importance to humankind. The 2015 TIP Report released Monday fell far short of those expectations.

In this year’s report, some countries rose and others fell in rankings that appeared to be based not a strict-but-fair assessment of their anti-trafficking efforts, but on the political priorities of the Obama Administration. We can’t comment on all the country rankings that anti-trafficking groups have questioned, but based on our work there are two in which the ranking failed to remotely reflect reality:


As advocates feared, Malaysia was upgraded from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List, despite showing little to no tangible progress and remaining one of the largest enablers of human trafficking in the world. On the same day the report was released, A Wall Street Journal exposé told the story of Mohammad Rubel, a 22 year old Bangladeshi man who was smuggled into Malaysia and forced to work seven days a week, without pay, for months until he escaped from a palm oil plantation in Malaysia. Just to reach Malaysia he endured three weeks in a crowded boat with inadequate food and water, followed by more weeks confined in a jungle camp while guards extorted a ransom from his parents back home. He said he saw dozens of fellow illegal migrants die from exhaustion, disease or beatings.

And this is far from the only example. The last year has seen the publication of multiple reports that suggest that Malaysia’s trafficking problem may be worse than advocates have feared, including reports about mass graves along the Thai-Malay border; forced labor in the electronics sector, and trafficking and debt bondage in the palm oil sector.

In contrast to the overwhelming evidence contained in these reports, the State Department’s analysis is inexcusably weak:

  • The TIP Report highlights proposed reforms to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law, none of which have actually become law during the TIP reporting period. 
  • The proposed reforms are mainly related to quality of life improvements (more freedom to work and meet with outsiders) for trafficking victims held in Malaysian detention centers. 
  • The report contains no mention of progress on any of the real drivers of labor trafficking in Malaysia, including: the failure to prosecute unethical labor recruiters and brokers who exploit migrant workers; a new policy which requires migrants (not employers) to pay recruitment fees, driving them further into debt; work permits that bind migrants to a specific employer (as opposed to an industry) and can be cancelled unilaterally by the employer regardless of reason; failure to prosecute the criminal syndicates that run human trafficking rings and frequently abuse migrant workers.    
  • The report admits that the number of convictions for human trafficking (including labor trafficking) declined from 9 in 2013 to just 3 in 2014. These numbers are shockingly low considering Malaysia has an estimated 4 million migrant workers, half of whom are undocumented. 

Juxtapose the Malay situation with the situation in Thailand, which also has about 4 million migrant workers in many of the same export sectors, all of whom are made vulnerable by the same labor trafficking drivers described above. Although Thailand still has significant problems, the government passed not one but three laws to address different aspects of its trafficking problem, and it convicted 151 people for human trafficking. It even convicted government officials in trafficking crackdowns.

So why did Thailand remain on Tier 3 while Malaysia was upgraded?  In a word: TPP.   

This week ministers representing the United States and 11 other countries are meeting in Hawaii in an attempt to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the massive trade deal that is a key priority for the Obama Administration. Under the trade promotion bill recently signed into law, the United States is prohibited from “fast-tracking” any trade agreement with countries rated “Tier 3” in the TIP report. With Malaysia downgraded to Tier 3 just last year, advocates knew there would be pressure from some parts of the Administration to upgrade Malaysia, regardless of its performance on ending human trafficking. 

In a fair assessment, both Thailand and Malaysia would be at Tier 3 of the TIP Report because their problem remains essentially the same: neither has shown the political will needed to ween their export-driven economies off of under-paid and non-paid labor. Human trafficking makes business and entire sectors of both countries’ economies seem profitable when they would not be with a paid labor force, and both countries’ governments are tied up in the economics of forced labor at very high levels. Until they take actions that provide migrant workers greater access to rights, neither can be considered to be taking meaningful efforts to address systemic trafficking in persons.


As far as government actions to end forced labor go, the Uzbek government is at the bottom of the pile. The problem here is not only that the Uzbek government is taking insufficient action to stop trafficking in the private sector, it’s that in this case the government IS the trafficker. Uzbekistan runs one of the largest state-run systems of forced labor in the world, mobilizing more than a million citizens each year to harvest cotton for the government-owned cotton industry. Profits from the sale of that cotton disappear into a secret fund, not into national coffers, and benefit solely the country’s political elite.

The 2015 TIP report itself noted that, “government-compelled forced labor of adults remained endemic in the 2014 cotton harvest.” Yet, it paradoxically determined that the government was taking sufficient steps to end human trafficking based on the same flimsy reasoning that got Malaysia the upgrade, focused on symptoms and proposed action rather than demonstrated effort and concrete results:

  • The TIP report cites a government decree reiterating that children are not to be mobilized for the harvest and noted that school directors and farmers had been fined for using child labor. After many years of intense campaign pressure, the Uzbek government has dramatically reduced the use of forced child labor in the cotton harvest; however, they have only shifted the age, replacing children with adult forced labor. As a result, the government did not reduce the number of people subjected to forced labor, and likely increased it as children were sent out for two-month working periods while adults tended to work shorter periods. Furthermore, the fines are misdirected. As the TIP Report stated, it is “government-compelled forced labor,” not farmer-compelled, and the school directors and other officials “under pressure to fulfill government-decreed cotton quotas, mobilized children.”
  • The report also cites a Decent Work Country Program agreement signed with the International Labour Organization that would include a survey on recruitment methods into the cotton harvest. Engagement with the ILO is an important first step, but the agreement has yet to be implemented and it remains to see whether the Uzbek government is truly committed to the key provision of eradicating forced labor in the cotton sector.
  • Finally, the report notes that the Uzbek government also agreed with the World Bank and ILO to allow ILO to monitor the 2015-2017 cotton harvests for child and forced labor in the Bank’s project areas. The government has simply not yet agreed to monitoring for forced labor, and 6 weeks out from the start of the harvest, we remain hopeful yet deeply skeptical that substantive ILO-led forced labor monitoring will actually occur this year.

The glaring contradiction of the TIP report conclusion that a government using endemic forced labor is also making significant efforts to end human trafficking would be comical, if the repercussions on the Uzbek population weren’t so severe. The same week the report was released a 58-year-old woman died prepping a cotton field for harvest. She was in that field because authorities had threatened she’d lose her job if she didn’t go. At least 17 people died in the 2014 cotton harvest, the highest our partners on the ground have ever recorded. The deaths included two children who died in a house fire. They had been left home alone because their mother was told to go to the field or lose her sole source of income, and she wasn’t allowed to bring the children because no children could be seen in the fields.

There are at least two plausible reasons underlying the decision. First, sales of military equipment to the Uzbek government this year indicate the U.S. continues to treat the Uzbek government as a geostrategic ally, for its proximity to Afghanistan, the shadow of Russia and ever-increasing presence of China. Second, the U.S. may expect the upgrade will incentivize the Uzbek government to make real progress ending its forced labor system. History would tell us otherwise. The Uzbek government has used forced labor for its entire 25-year history and has only blinked under pressure.

Therein lies the real problem with the State Department’s decision to upgrade Malaysia and Uzbekistan. It eases the pressure on governments that need to be pressured, while validating the arguments from countries like Thailand that the report is a political tool that doesn’t accurately characterize their level of commitment. It also sends a troubling message that, even under an Administration that has made several laudable commitments to ending human trafficking, when the chips are down its trade and security interests trump human rights. Finally, it undermines the integrity of the TIP report itself. By trading accuracy for short-term expediency, the State Department has tarnished the image of the report and made it less effective as an advocacy tool. Let’s hope that by giving it an accurate assessment, we can improve outcomes for next year’s report.