Until two weeks ago, expanding free trade and promoting human rights seemed to be at odds with each other in U.S. law. Human rights provisions in trade laws historically either lacked teeth or agreements simply passed the issue on to other authorities to deal with, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO).

That changed this spring, when Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezYear-end deal creates American Latino, women's history museums Lawmakers call for including creation of Latino, women's history museums in year-end spending deal Trump offered 0 million to terrorism victims to save Sudan-Israel deal  MORE (D-N.J.) succeeded in adding an amendment to fight human trafficking to the recently passed Trade Act of 2015, which provides for fast-track trade consideration of such agreements as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

When this amendment passed in committee, it was the first human rights condition on trade in over 40 years. And while there are opportunities to improve the amendment, it's important that this landmark language is not stripped from the bill, despite concerns from some administration and congressional officials.


Menendez's amendment prohibits an agreement from receiving fast-track benefits if that agreement, like the TPP, includes a country that is not meeting the minimum standards in combatting human trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. These countries are given "Tier 3" status in the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report.

If we are to open trade relations across the Pacific (and in so doing, confer great political and economic advantages to the governments in the TPP), the Menendez provision is sorely needed. Malaysia, one of the TPP countries, has had forced labor documented in agriculture, construction, electronics, textiles and domestic service in homes. U.S. citizens could well be wearing clothes made by modern slavery, or texting with phones assembled by people trembling with fear, as recently documented by research commissioned by the Department of Labor. Migrant laborers in many of these TPP countries may be in debt bondage, with their passports confiscated, and their undocumented status used as a weapon to continue severe exploitation. These abuses were highlighted by last week's reports that authorities have uncovered mass graves along the Thai-Malaysian border of migrants killed because they refused to be cowed by the human traffickers who held them. Thailand, which could join TPP later, has had terrible conditions exposed in their seafood industry, with Burmese, Cambodian and other migrants suffering in modern slavery.

Administration and congressional TPP supporters are alarmed over this amendment, labeling it a "poison pill." Their opposition is not because they do not want to fight modern slavery, but because the amendment will effectively force them to drop Malaysia from the TPP, which could undermine the entire negotiation.

We can still reach common ground on this critical issue. The administration, working with interested Senate members and a number of human rights organizations, including the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, helped craft a narrow exception that allows fast-track benefits if the Tier 3 country takes "concrete actions to implement the principal recommendations" from trafficking experts at the State Department to improve the country's response to modern slavery. For the first time, countries would have to implement the specific main recommendations made in the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report, not through new plans, but through actual and serious progress.

The new exception language means that, for example, Malaysia would not only pass new laws but also fund programs to provide assistance to trafficking survivors, increase efforts to prosecute traffickers, take specific criminal action to enforce laws prohibiting seizing passports and, perhaps more importantly, prosecute unethical labor recruiters who put workers in bonded labor. Plans would not be sufficient; rather, between now and when the TPP is submitted to Congress, Malaysia would have to make real progress through real action.

This modification was not accepted in the Senate because of procedural obstacles and the Senate's rush to the exits before recess. But it may — and should — be included in a separate bill on customs enforcement which the House is planning to pass at the same time as the Trade Act.

To sweeten the deal, the customs enforcement bill may also eliminate a trade loophole that previously undermined the U.S. government's ability to prohibit the importation of goods made by forced or prison labor. Expanding American authority to stop the importation of goods made with forced or prison labor could reinforce the modified Menendez Amendment by limiting goods that come in from Malaysia or Thailand that use forced labor, or by scrutinizing products made by companies that we know do not carefully monitor their supply chains.

These two provisions — no fast-track until real action on human trafficking and strengthening authority to prohibit the entry of goods made with forced or prison goods — together can have a critical and measurable impact over time on the issues of modern slavery and international trade. They show that the United States can expand trade and address serious human rights concerns at the same time.

With the ILO estimating that nearly 21 million workers are in modern slavery at any one time, and with many of those workers involved in the global supply chains that reach the United States, we need to use all of our tools to stop human trafficking around the globe. We shouldn't let our open markets fuel this trade, and whatever one thinks of the Trade Act of 2015, these provisions are a positive step in ensuring the products Americans buy are not tainted with slavery. As this legislation comes before the House of Representatives, these provisions should remain in the final package, however the votes turn out.

This piece has been corrected to accurately reflect quoted text from the exception language.

Abramowitz is the vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United and former chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.