After 10 years of negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), a regional trade deal amongst 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 US has been so keen about pushing for the TPPA that even the usually recalcitrant US 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 US 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 US 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 announce to the world that our human trafficking issues are not as bad as human rights groups have made them out to be.
The International Trade and Industry Minister is also now able to show the rakyat that he has successfully brought the benefits of the TPPA to Malaysia.
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 important than business (to me at least) is the fate of the thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Despite the official stand that things are better now in terms of the prevention and management of human trafficking, it’s still true that the prosecution of such cases is negligible.
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 laboured 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.
We must not turn a blind eye to the fact that our neighbour Thailand has one of the worst records in human trafficking. We surely must know about the real conditions that oil palm workers face because Felda employs so many of them.
Large American companies buy the finished products from the palm oil industry, so they too should know what the living and working conditions of these workers are like.
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 US to discuss ways and means to improve Malaysia’s performance in preventing human trafficking, and in detaining and prosecuting offenders.
We are quite good in 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 RM700 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.
Felda must care enough about these people to carry out spot checks on their subcontractors.
We still hear all too frequently about workers being deprived of their wages and of employers withholding their passports.
Felda is already a global palm oil player; its next mission must be to help rid this high-income developed country of ours of such practices.
This article was first published in The Star, here: TPPA and the trafficking of human lives.