The economic downturn is adding a new dimension to the global problem of human trafficking – known as modern-day slavery – as workers desperate for income accept increasingly onerous conditions or fall prey to international cheap-labor rings.
The result, according to the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report, is an increase in the number of countries, primarily in the developing world, that are either overlooking rising incidents of trafficking and bondage, or are failing to enforce the laws they've passed to curb the problem.
The report, which covers 2008 but which is the Obama administration's first on the issue, places 52 countries and territories on the watch list of countries that are not doing enough to stem human trafficking, up from 40 countries last year.
"In a time of economic crisis, workers are more vulnerable … and persons under economic stress are more likely to fall prey to the wiles of traffickers," says Luis CdeBaca, director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The uptick in countries on the US watch list reflects both the increased number of countries included in the ranking this year – up by 20 to a total of 173 countries – and the tighter standards passed by Congress last year for judging a country's performance.
But the economic crisis is clearly another factor, says Mr. CdeBaca. As economies have soured, more workers in sectors ranging from agriculture and fishing to construction and domestic services have fallen prey to employers who deny wages, claiming they are owed debts workers are unable to repay, or who use an employee's murky legal status to force them into bondage.
Traditionally, human trafficking has been associated with the international sex trade. And forced prostitution of women and children remains a major contributor to trafficking, but CdeBaca notes that the International Labor Organization this year estimates 12.3 million cases of human bondage worldwide, of which just over one-tenth, or 1.5 million, are thought to be cases of sexual servitude.
In more evidence that labor trafficking isn't getting enough attention from economically-strapped countries, the State Department notes that of the 2,983 convictions reported worldwide, only 104 were for trafficking in the labor sector.
One the bright side, the State Department showcases Nigeria, a country that this year moved up to the elite list of countries that fully comply with the minimum international standards for protecting trafficking victims. Highlighting Nigeria's "political will" to address the issue, CdeBaca says, "I can't talk about it enough" as an example for other countries.
Not so encouraging was Malaysia, which suffered a downgrade of its ranking over evidence of increased trafficking of Burmese refugees for servitude in the South Asian country. The downgrade reflects the findings of a US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report earlier this year that exposed rampant exploitation and trafficking of Burmese migrants and refugees – often with the collaboration of Malaysian officials.
Domestic and international anti-slavery organizations have been crucial in highlighting cases and ending abusive practices, says the new US report – the ninth since human trafficking legislation was passed in 2000. One such organization is the Touch a Life Foundation, a Dallas-based organization working to rescue victims ranging from boys enslaved by fishermen on Ghana's Lake Volta to girls and women in sexual servitude in Cambodia.
Pam Cope, Touch a Life's cofounder, says the traditional acceptance of servitude in some cultures and lax enforcement of existing laws are contributing to human trafficking as much as the economic downturn.
"I don't really see it having so much to do with the poor economy. I just think human trafficking has become a huge money-making industry," she says, adding that too many countries fail to enforce the laws they have to stop it.
That's the case of Cambodia, she says, where authorities look the other way as visiting foreigners exploit locals for sex and other services. A different case is Ghana, she says, where her organization is working with local men to rescue small boys enslaved by fishermen and to educate tribal chiefs about the long-term impact of slavery on their communities.
"I'm hopeful with Ghana," she says, "because the people we're working with there are really taking this effort to end this slavery and making it their own."