U.S. lawmakers called on the Obama administration to give more weight to the fight against human trafficking in talks to normalize ties with Cuba and in trade negotiations with Malaysia.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday was the second called by Chairman Robert Corker, a Tennessee Republican, to focus on the global problem of forced labor and sex slavery and on how the U.S. can fight it.
“Even in countries with laws and institutions, insidious forms of modern slavery exist,” Corker said.
Democratic senators suggested that the U.S. can pursue the issue in diplomatic and trade talks. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the committee, asked about talks to normalize relations with Cuba, saying that the State Department has identified the island nation as a source for sex trafficking of women and children.
Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, suggested that U.S. trade negotiators raise the issue with Malaysia before the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact is signed. The State Department identified Malaysia in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report as a destination, source and transit country for men subjected to forced labor, and women and children forced into sex work.
Menendez pointed out that Cuban doctors sent overseas to work don’t receive payments, which instead are sent directly to the Cuban government.
“One thing is to have a blind eye, the other thing is to be complicit in the trafficking, and that’s the reality of Cuba,” said Menendez, a critic of the Obama administrations moves to normalize relations with Cuba.
Sarah Sewall, the under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, told Menendez that Cuba presents a challenge.
“Government complicity in trafficking is one of the most troubling and nefarious aspects” of the issue, she said. While U.S. officials are raising the issue with Cuban counterparts in the talks, and “we would like to take advantage of any opening we have, the problems, as you pointed out, are severe.”
She said people can learn how their consumption habits are connected to modern-day slavery by visiting the subscription website SlaveryFootprint.org. She said it provides “a stark reminder, many of the products I use on a daily basis, the battery in my cell phone, the chocolate I eat, the cotton clothes I wear, may have been produced from the work of dozens of slaves.”
Cardin told Sewall that it was important for her bureau to push U.S. trade negotiators to raise the issue with Malaysia now, while the talks are continuing.
“As things start to become more normal and trade starts,” Cardin said, “you lose your leverage.”