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 …