From Mexico to Malaysia: The U.S. Should Leverage Trade against Trafficking

Zunduri, A 22-year-old woman from southern Mexico recently escaped after spending five years working in slave-like conditions in a family-owned dry cleaner in the capital. Her exploiters kept her chained to a wall and forced her to work 14 hours a day ironing clothes. She received no compensation, and was beaten and burned with an iron if she refused to work.

A runaway youth, Zunduri’s exploiters lured her with the promise of a paying job and place to live. However, soon after, she found herself working longer shifts to repay the family for her “room and board.” Her exploiters prohibited her from leaving the workplace. After a failed escape attempt, they chained her to a wall. She finally managed to escape her captors after realizing that they had mistakenly left the padlock on her chain unlocked. Following her escape, Mexican authorities detained six members of the family who are facing multiple criminal charges.

Human trafficking plagues the economies of most countries, including the United States. (In fact, U.S. officials recently uncovered a similar case where Virginia restaurant owners controlled migrant workers “through isolation, threats, and harassment.”) However, not all countries are taking sufficient measures to address the problem.

The State Department sets minimum standards for addressing human trafficking and ranks countries based on their effort to meet those standards. The theory is that we can encourage countries on the lower tiers to clean up their record or risk losing all of their U.S. development assistance. This often works, though we’ve also seen the State Department rank countries higher than they deserve, presumably because there are other U.S. interests at stake, like trade.

In fact, many U.S. trade partners haven’t adopted sufficient measures to fight modern day slavery. The Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement under negotiation, would include Malaysia, which is on the third and lowest tier in the most recent report. This means that they have failed to comply with minimum standards for combating human trafficking and are making no efforts to improve.

The United States should use the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations to promote better anti-human trafficking policies among its trade partners. These negotiations could provide an ideal platform to spotlight this human rights problem, share expertise, and apply pressure.

For more information on how to disrupt the business of human trafficking, check out our blueprint.

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Published on May 4, 2015

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