U.S. State Department Report: Misleading; Not Transparent; Error-Filled; Must Be Revised


The recently released Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) by the U.S. State Department failed at its most basic test: to take into account reforms made by the Malaysian government, specifically the Ministry for Plantation Industries and Commodities, in governing the sector in accordance with international best practices on labour rights.

The State Department has not referenced or acknowledged these reforms.  

Each of these reforms took place within the TIP Report’s assessment period. Each of these reforms was communicated to State Department officials. Moreover, Malaysia identified serious shortcomings contained in the previous TIP reports – this was also communicated within the assessment period.

This gives the impression to many in Kuala Lumpur, and our global stakeholders, that the report had a predetermined view on palm oil, and that Malaysia’s efforts are not, and will not be, appreciated or acknowledged.

This is of great concern.

The Chairman of MPOC, Larry Sng, has addressed these concerns in a letter to a top ranking U.S. State Department officials who has oversight over the TIP office – Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights in the State Department.

In the letter, Mr Sng writes that “Significant legal, regulatory and policy measures undertaken by the Malaysian government have not been included [in the TIP Report]”, suggesting a bias of omission.

Foremost among these was the update to the Malaysian Government’s mandatory regulation scheme – known as the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). The omission of this from the TIP Report is extraordinary, given the latest MSPO revision has included a significant focus on labour and workers’ rights (far exceeding anything in the marketplace, including from the multi-stakeholder RSPO scheme). Mr Sng writes “the introduction of the revised standard and the launch of the standard took place within the TIP Report’s assessment period”, which allows no room for doubt as far as the Malaysian industry is concerned: MSPO has been ignored as a matter of policy at the TIP Office.

This matters, deeply. MSPO is not only a policy of the government – it is a mandatory regulation that carries with it the government’s writ across the entire palm oil sector. Any reform to MSPO – whether good or bad – clearly carries a material impact into every corner of the palm oil sector in Malaysia. Including on labour rights.

Mr Sng highlights further some of the errors, inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the past TIP Reports, which appears to have relied on out-of-date information from NGOs with an axe to grind. These individual errors and oversights, while embarrassing for what is billed as a globally-significant publication, are secondary to the bigger strategic question of whether or not the State Department is willing to accept – or even acknowledge – the Malaysian Government’s ongoing efforts to reform practices.

If this is not the case – and if even flagship regulations such as MSPO are ignored – then it begs the question of what the TIP Report and process is actually for. Without cooperation and good relations with partner countries, the U.S. will not achieve significant change on the ground. Surely this is the ultimate goal? Those countries like Malaysia that show willingness and progress should better be supported, not set aside.

As Larry Sng highlights in his letter to the State Department, if the policy direction is not cooperation and support, then that is a mistake…

“… the facts are clear: the Malaysian government has undertaken significant reforms since the 2021 report was published with respect to the palm oil sector.

“The State Department has not referenced or acknowledged these reforms. This gives the impression that the report has a predetermined view on palm oil, and that Malaysia’s efforts are not, and will not be, appreciated or acknowledged. This is of great concern.”

It is not clear at time of writing whether the U.S. State Department has responded to Mr Sng. To put it mildly, the closer one looks at the TIP process, the less inclusive and transparent, and less evidence-based, it actually appears.