Future U.S. & Asia Relations: Addressing Modern-Day Slavery in the TPP

Human Trafficking in Asia

Many of us have never had to contemplate taking extreme, even unthinkable measures in order to generate enough income to feed our family, pay for the rent, mortgage, or provide care for a sick child or ailing parent. Many of us, possibly, have also never had to consider engaging in behavior that goes against our morals, values, or fundamental beliefs about what is right and wrong, and what is a sin or a necessary evil. Many others, however, have had to do so on a daily basis because they exist in a world where socially, culturally, and economically, they have no other alternatives. That was the case for Alma, a survivor of human trafficking in the Philippines, who was forced by her employer to have sex with a serviceman after he received a “bar fine” that purchased her for the evening, like she was a room for rent. She said “No” but her manager threatened to fire her and keep her transfer documents, which would allow her to work elsewhere. Alma had struggled finding a job and knew she could not afford to be unemployed. She was scared that she and her children would end up homeless and hungry, so Alma reluctantly agreed. It was the first, but unfortunately, not the last time that Alma engaged in sex work to provide for her loved ones.

Alma’s story is only one account of millions of tragedies where people in vulnerable positions are forced, coerced, threatened or abused in order to engage in labor and prostitution. The practice of selling, buying and exploiting human beings, as a commodity, is known as trafficking, or modern-day slavery. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, defines human trafficking as: the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation can take many forms including sex trafficking, forced labor, domestic servitude, and trafficking of children pornography and commercial sex.

Human trafficking is a harsh reality for millions of women, men, and children throughout the world every year. It oppresses and exploits without mercy, often using violence and power to exert dominance and demand submission of the victims. The Polaris Project describes it as the use of violence, threats, deception, debt bondage, and other manipulative tactics to trap victims in horrific situations every day in America and all over the globe. All trafficking victims share one essential experience – the loss of freedom.

The precise number of people being trafficked is difficult to estimate, but the Global Slavery Index (GSI) suggests 36 million victims worldwide are involved in forced labor and sexual exploitation. This is particularly relevant to any and all conversations that take place concerning future relations between the U.S. and Asia, especially as it relates to the Trans-Pacific Partnership because, according to the GSI, of those 36 million trafficking victims, nearly two-thirds are from Asian countries. Human exploitation in Asia is one of the most severe human rights problems of our time. The GSI places India, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Thailand in the top 10 countries with the highest number of trafficking victims in the world. The most egregious countries are India, which tops the list with 14 million victims of trafficking, followed by China at 3.2 million, and Pakistan with 2.1 million trafficking victims.

Trafficking, however, is not something that we can consider an isolated or restricted crime. Everyone must address human exploitation because trafficked individuals travel from 127 countries and are exploited in 137 countries, on every continent and in every type of economy. The U.S. is not exempt, and is currently trying to address and eliminate the buying and selling of hundreds of thousands of both adults and minors who are exploited and abused in the sex trafficking and labor trafficking trade on a daily basis. Due to the nature of the industry, it makes it impossible to know the exact value generated but estimates of worldwide forced labor and sex trafficking profits are as high as $150 billion annually.

In order for the United States and Asia to have a promising future in trade, foreign policy negotiations, USAID, and mutual investment in socioeconomic development, there must be a closer collaboration in addressing the eradication of human trafficking in Asian countries. This would strengthen relations, as joint efforts to eliminate the commodification of human beings will advance individual liberty, human rights, and promote global responsibility.


The International Fight Against Human Trafficking and the TPP 

Several plans of action have been established to combat human trafficking across the world. They range from the development of non-government organizations (NGO’s) who, aim to rescue and assist victims of trafficking, law enforcement initiatives and legislations that attack trafficking, and international treaties that establish common protocols for eliminating trafficking initiatives.

Among these efforts are the Polaris Project, an NGO that attempts to disrupt the conditions that allow human trafficking to thrive by working with government leaders to protect victims’ rights, build partnerships with the world’s leading technology corporations and influence long-term change that focuses communities on identifying, reporting and eliminating the problem. Their operations are effective, but the trafficking market is broad and it connects to every corner of the globe. That is why, more must be done by individual governments, particularly through policing efforts and prosecution of this crime to collectively demonstrate that trafficking will not be tolerated, normalized, or justified, as a substantial form of economic development. That is the reason that TPP negotiations are so incredibly important to human rights advocates who see these negotiations as a way to encourage, and in some cases, demand that participating countries comply with the minimum standards of human trafficking laws, set out by the United Nations, as it relates to preventing, responding, policing and prosecuting this crime.

Key international treaties that should be complied with and ratified by the U.S. and Trans-Pacific partners as part of all trade negotiations include the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, and the Global Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking. 

CEDAW is particularly significant in trafficking efforts because sex trafficking disproportionately affects women and girls who make up 79% of the sexually exploited victims. CEDAW declares that sex trafficking is a form of gender discrimination and a human rights violation “incompatible with the equal enjoyment of rights by women and with respect for their rights and dignity.” CEDAW, thus, is one of the manifestations to serve as a model for women’s civil rights being protected and prioritized in all nations. The U.S. must model as an example in advocating for human rights, particularly as it relates to gender discrimination and equality, by ratifying CEDAW.

The UN's Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, aims to prevent and combat trafficking in people, prioritizing women and children, to protect and assist the victims of trafficking, and to promote cooperation among parties to meet such goals. Two of the countries involved in TPP negotiations, Brunei and Singapore, have not signed and ratified the protocol. 

The UN’s most recent attempt to unify nations in the collective battle against human exploitation was the 2010 Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which aims to prevent the trafficking; protect and assist the victims; prosecute the crimes; and strengthen partnerships against this practice. With the increasing concern of human trafficking as a criminal enterprise that resembles the largest criminal organization in the world, the drug trade, the UN needed to place a lager emphasis on prosecution and offering aid to survivors.  The UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, is particularly significant to the collaborative efforts to end trafficking networks but out of 193 Member States, only 12 have actually contributed to the Fund. Although Member States had made pledges during the establishment of the Fund, Member States whose victims would greatly benefit from the assistance, have failed to contribute at all. This is another example of the tremendous influence that TPP negotiations can have on assisting trafficking victims. A provision in the agreement could require that partners in trade would contribute yearly to the Fund, especially, if due to the trade with other powerful countries, they would have a significant boost in their economy.

There are certain success stories that have already begun to develop in the Trans-Pacific region in addressing human exploit through collaborative initiatives with the U.S. Particularly, from countries that want to prevent human trafficking from serving as a source of income that targets the vulnerable, especially the poor, who often risk traveling to different countries to find work and inadvertently find themselves lured and trapped by traffickers who prey on those in desperate need of resources. Because economic vulnerability is a large reason that trafficking exists, the Millennium Challenge Corporation reserved a five-year $434 million compact for the Philippines to develop anti-poverty programs, like the Kalahi-CIDSS project. This project is a community-driven development initiative that empowers communities through enhanced participation in projects that reduce poverty. This inevitably targets at reducing human trafficking efforts by those who prey on the poor by providing viable options for work and opportunities for self-sustenance. Another example of collaboration between the U.S. and the Philippines to eliminate human trafficking is the joint effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Philippines National Police during a combined operation that helped bust local and international criminal syndicates who were running trafficking markets in the archipelago. In Cebu, Philippines, the International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-human exploitation NGO, with their Project Lantern, implemented justice and security to exploited civilians, which then led to the rescue of 225 trafficked females and the arrest of 87 traffickers. This IJM project also served as a model for the NGO to operate in other locations like Cambodia, with similar results, causing the number of participants of the commercial sex industry to drop. These are only a few of several examples that prove that the TPP can provide opportunities to jointly address the short and long term impact of the commodification of human beings.

Given that NGOs headline the prevention of human trafficking and are primarily responsible for rescue missions of hundreds of victims, individual governments should support the NGO's efforts by raising as much concern for this issue as possible through these trade negotiations, since, as established, all parties have victims of their own. The U.S. can really model significant language and prioritize labor that is free of human rights abuse by inserting provisions in the trade agreements that would pose sanctions if partners failed to comply. This would only strengthen their resolve against trafficking on the heels of newly passed legislation that addresses human trafficking in the U.S. Senate Bill 178, or the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, that passed with 99-0 votes on April 22, 2015, expands law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers and creates a new fund to help victims, funds generated in part by fines paid by traffickers. As The Heritage Foundation reports, the U.S., being a global leader, needs to increase their efforts in aggressively advocating against human trafficking and raise this as a global concern. And not just by their own law enforcement strategies, but also by cooperating with affected countries in aiding prevention, training those nations to be involved in the same effective programming, and encouraging the nations to develop their own law enforcement protocols.

The TPP negotiations should, therefore, serve as a prime example that countries that fail to protect the people within their borders, especially those most vulnerable to crime, exploitation, and violence, due to the lack of economic opportunities available to them, will not be rewarded. Upholding human rights and dignity for men, women, and children, must be amongst U.S. and Asia's priorities and objectives when considering foreign trade, especially when several countries that have a history of turning a blind eye to human rights violations will benefit greatly from these negotiations. This could essentially mean, that Malaysia, who is listed as Tier 3 in the Trafficking in Persons Report, may be barred from participating amongst the countries that benefit from the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement unless they come into compliance with the minimum standards of eliminating human trafficking. It would be counter intuitive, on the heels of signing new law, that the U.S. do business with countries that fail to recognize or act against the very crime they are trying to prevent and eliminate. 

The TPP negotiations have the potential to set the standard that money does not trump human rights, and money should never trump freedom to exist without abuse. Parties that choose to engage in the world market and benefit from the economic development that results in doing business with powerful countries must invest political, governmental, and socio-cultural attention to protecting those most vulnerable to exploitation. The commodification of human beings should no longer be tolerated and the TPP can make great strides to ensure that it no longer is. 


Nubia Pena

University of Utah

United States of America  


Paolo Alfar

De La Salle University


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Comment by Nubia Pena on May 3, 2015 at 8:37pm

Thank you Regina for taking the time to review this piece. I am grateful that it brought awareness to you, as I hope it did to others. The conversation surrounding human trafficking is layered and complex so I take every opportunity to create a dialogue. I hope that you consider looking into local efforts within your community to address this critical issue. Thank you for posting your thoughtful comment!

Comment by Regina Parker on May 3, 2015 at 5:44pm

Thank you for shedding light on this issue. 36 million victims? That's 10% of the US population. Shameful.

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