The U.S. is reported to be preparing to elevate Malaysia's human trafficking status, drawing statements of concern from a senior lawmaker and human rights group.
Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, informed reporters Wednesday the State Department would upgrade Malaysia in its annual report on human trafficking, set for release next week.
Last year's report placed Malaysia in Tier 3 - the lowest category, among countries such as Iran, North Korea and Russia that are not meeting minimum requirements to combat modern slavery.
Malaysia is one of 11 nations involved in negotiations with the U.S. on the ambitious and long-delayed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, free trade agreement.
The Obama administration last month cleared a major hurdle toward completing the deal when Congress agreed to give the White House "fast-track" trade promotion authority.
But the bill passed by lawmakers specifically prohibits the U.S. from completing fast-tracked free trade deals with countries in Tier 3 of the State Department report.
Any move to upgrade Malaysia's status is being driven by political considerations and is not based on any actual improvement by Malaysia, says Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson.
Robertson says the Southeast Asian country has done little in the past year to improve conditions for human trafficking victims and vulnerable migrant workers.
In a statement, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez said "the deplorable human trafficking crisis in Malaysia merits a global cry for action and justice — not an attempt to sweep them under the rug for political expediency."
"If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 TIP report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking," he said.
Malaysia is home to an estimated two million poor migrant workers from around the region who often become prey to abusive employers and labor agents, sometimes enduring forced labor conditions.
The country's record on human trafficking was brought to the forefront earlier this year when authorities found abandoned human trafficking camps along with mass graves containing dozens of bodies.
The camps, located near Malaysia's border with Thailand, are believed to have been run by a regional criminal syndicate that smuggled tens of thousands of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Similar camps and graves also were found on the Thai side of the border. Following a Thai crackdown on the people smuggling ring, many of the victims were abandoned at sea, with little or no food supplies.
Malaysia and other countries initially refused to allow the migrants and trafficking victims to come ashore, leaving them with nowhere to go and creating a major humanitarian crisis.
Following weeks of international pressure, Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to shelter 7,000 of the migrants, provided they are resettled with the help of the international community within a year.