Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship and the traf­fick­ing of hu­man lives

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ZAID IBRAHIM

Af­ter 10 years of ne­go­ti­a­tions, the Trans- Pa­cific Part­ner­ship Agree­ment (TPPA), a re­gional trade deal among 12 coun­tries in the Asia-Pa­cific Re­gion, is still yet to be signed.

Nat­u­rally the United States, the prime mover of free trade, is anx­ious to con­clude ne­go­ti­a­tions soon.

We have to be ex­tra care­ful here and be mind­ful of the fact that the TPPA is not just about trade.

In coun­tries such as Malaysia, it will af­fect med­i­cal, ed­u­ca­tional and cul­tural ar­eas as well.

For ex­am­ple, we use a lot of generic medicines be­cause they are much cheaper than patented medicines.

These generic for­mu­la­tions nat­u­rally al­low for wider ac­cess to med­i­cal treat­ment, es­pe­cially for less de­vel­oped com­mu­ni­ties.

But the TPPA will most cer­tainly grant big phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firms greater pro­tec­tion for their patents and clin­i­cal data, which means it will be­come far more dif­fi­cult to pro­duce qual­ity generic medicines.

Politi­cians, trade ac­tivists and rights cam­paign­ers have raised many other such is­sues about the TPPA.

The U.S. has been so keen about push­ing for the TPPA that even the usu­ally re­cal­ci­trant U.S. Congress has de­cided to em­power Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to fast-track ne­go­ti­a­tions to sign the deal with par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries.

Coun­tries that have been placed in the Tier 3 rank­ing on the U.S. Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Re­port, how­ever, are not el­i­gi­ble for this fast-track mech­a­nism.

Af­fected coun­tries in­clude Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Ara­bia and Zim­babwe. Un­til yesterday, Malaysia was also a mem­ber of this Tier 3 team. The pro­mo­tion of Malaysia, a big U.S. trad­ing part­ner, to Tier 2 Watch List has given both coun­tries a re­prieve.

Both are ea­ger to sign the TPPA, although the Malaysian Gov­ern­ment has been care­ful not to seem too en­thu­si­as­tic about it.

Now that Malaysia has suc­cess­fully lob­bied it­self into Tier 2 Watch List, our gov­ern­ment can now an- nounce to the world that our hu­man traf­fick­ing is­sues are not as bad as hu­man rights groups have made them out to be.

I must say that we should not go over­board in cel­e­brat­ing our coun­try’s up­grade to Tier 2 Watch List or in sign­ing the trade agree­ment.

There are many ar­eas of the TPPA that we should be tak­ing a hard look at, be­cause it will give the big economies and multi­na­tion­als a stronger say in how we man­age our own busi­nesses.

More Than Busi­ness

More im­por­tant than busi­ness (to me at least) is the fate of the thou­sands of illegal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh and Myan­mar.

As a coun­try, we still have a long way to go to get rid of hu­man traf­fick­ers, sim­ply be­cause we have large oil palm es­tates that need work­ers and we are so close to Bangladesh and Myan­mar, the coun­tries that sup­ply them.

Hav­ing laws to pro­tect these in­no­cent work­ers from be­ing treated like the slaves who once la­bored in the old Con­fed­er­ate Amer­i­can states is not enough. That is the easy part.

What counts more is our se­ri­ous­ness in pros­e­cut­ing and send­ing the crooks who are re­spon­si­ble to prison.

We must not for­get about the mass graves that we dis­cov­ered in Perlis or the many camps along the Thai bor­der that the traf­fick­ers used.

The deputy home min­is­ter has been full of praise for Malaysia’s ef­forts in com­bat­ing hu­man traf­fick­ing.

He talked about the amend­ment to the Anti-Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons and Anti-Smug­gling of Mi­grants Act, and said Malaysian of­fi­cials held four meet­ings with the U.S. to dis­cuss ways and means to im­prove Malaysia’s per­for­mance in pre­vent­ing hu­man traf­fick­ing, and in de­tain­ing and pros­e­cut­ing of­fend­ers.

We are quite good at draft­ing laws but we do not al­ways have the where­withal to prop­erly im­ple­ment them.

I would like to sug­gest that while we celebrate the suc­cess of the TPPA and with it, the up­grad­ing of our place in the rank­ing for hu­man traf­fick­ing, please spare a thought for the es­ti­mated more than 50,000 boat peo­ple who come from Bangladesh and Myan­mar ev­ery year.

Many lose their lives dur­ing their dan­ger­ous jour­neys, af­ter hav­ing al­ready had to sell their prop­er­ties to pay the ex­or­bi­tant fees that traf­fick­ers charge.

All of them em­barked on these jour­neys to find work, to make some­thing of their lives, and to give their chil­dren a bet­ter chance at a fu­ture.

While we want our palm oil in­dus­try to flour­ish and while we celebrate be­ing part of a free trade pact with re­gional coun­tries, let’s not for­get the many Bangladeshis and Myan­mar in our Felda es­tates who earn 700 ring­git (US$183.20) a month or less.

Some of them do not get paid for months. Felda and other plan­ta­tion own­ers may not be di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for this state of af­fairs or for illegal work­ers com­ing to their es­tates, but they do have a moral duty to en­sure their sub­con­trac­tors and other sup­pli­ers do not bring in these work­ers.

If these work­ers do end up on the es­tates, then they must at least be paid as they were promised.

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