Trying to rally support for the oft-criticized Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama said it will go a long way to improving human rights conditions across the globe.
Specifically, he said during a press conference with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Loong, it will curb human trafficking in Malaysia.
"The same is true for things like human trafficking, where we've got a country like Malaysia taking really serious efforts to crack down on human trafficking," Obama said. "Why? Because TPP says you need to."
Trafficking in Malaysia
Malaysia has long been classified a human trafficking-destination by the U.S. State Department. In its 2015 "Trafficking in Persons" report, the State Department said Malaysia was guilty of debt bondage, unfair recruitment, wage fraud and passport confiscation.
Trafficking in the construction industry has long made Malaysia stand out, said Eric Edmonds, an economics professor at Dartmouth University. Sex trafficking is not as big a problem there, he said.
The State Department has classified Malaysia among countries working toward better compliance with correcting human trafficking problems.
This leads us to the TPP.
The White House pointed us to the "consistency plan" negotiated between the United States and Malaysia, which sets out changes Malaysia must make in its legal codes and procedures before the agreement can enter into force. The plan also establishes a bilateral committee to handle any compliance complaints.
Provisions within the plan include: preventing employers from withholding employees’ passports, ensuring fair recruitment practices, allowing trafficking victims to move freely between shelters and allocating resources to labor law enforcement and data collection.
Prior to the TPP being finalized in October, Malaysia has taken other efforts to combat human trafficking.
In June 2015, Malaysia amended its law to improve treatment of trafficking victims. Among the changes, Malaysia gave victims better access to government shelters, transitional housing and more victim-friendly restitution procedures. Cathleen Ciminio-Isaacs, a research associate at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a group that has been described as pro-trade, noted this was an example of complying with the TPP.
Edmonds added Malaysia has worked to prevent trafficking in the construction industry, by pulling construction visas. If workers can’t come into the country via construction visas, it is unlikely trafficking will occur, he explained.
"A way to evaluate the success of the anti-trafficking factors is when we stop doing the things that allows there to be trafficking," Edmonds said.
He said that this action would qualify as a "crackdown," when defined as a serious effort having an impact. While pulling visas is not contained in the consistency plan, Edmonds said the administrative change came "at the behest of the Obama administration."
He added that, although the cause-effect relationship between the TPP and these actions is "loosy goosy," the TPP "absolutely" had a strong influence on legal changes that occurred while negotiations were underway.
Experts we spoke to had slightly varied opinions on what a "serious effort to combat human trafficking" entails. But there is something being done.
John Sifton, Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, had a stricter interpretation of Obama’s claim, saying "serious efforts" would require actual results on the ground. He said results, at least as of now, are lacking.
"Malaysia has promised to crack down on human trafficking," he said. "Are they cracking down on human trafficking? No, not yet. They have a long way to go. The best way to describe the president’s language is he’s premature."
He added that it is likely Malaysia would change its legal code, but that implementation is a trickier proposition.
Case in point, Sifton said, the number of prosecutions brought against trafficking in Malaysia is low. In 2015, the State Department reported, there were 38 prosecutions, down from 54 in 2014. There were seven convictions, up from three in 2014.
The White House emphasized, however, that statistical evidence of declining trafficking, given the nature of the crime, will be hard to come by.
Other experts said there is a "serious effort" happening. Alison Brysk, Mellichamp professor of global governance at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agreed that on-the-ground enforcement action hasn’t changed much.
However, that doesn’t mean "serious efforts" aren’t being taken. Looking at the consistency plan, she said some of the provisions — such as its withholding passport provisions — are "relevant and meaningful" in terms of improving enforcement practices.
"If Malaysia is doing all of these things, than that is movement in the right direction," Brysk said.
Obama said Malaysia is "taking really serious efforts to crack down on human trafficking" due to the TPP.
Malaysia has been drafting changes to its legal code, experts told us, and already made legislative and administrative changes to combat human trafficking. Even if human trafficking numbers haven’t yet changed, experts said what Malaysia has done constituted a "serious effort," and that the TPP had an influence.
We rate Obama’s statement Mostly True.