WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Wednesday added South Sudan, Suriname and Vietnam to its list of 74 countries where adults and children as young as 5 are subjected to serious labor and human trafficking abuses in prostitution, mining and other dangerous work.
The U.S. Labor Department’s annual assessment of global human trafficking also raised concerns that the international economic crisis is slowing efforts to eradicate such child abuses by 2016.
“Just a few years from the deadline much remains to be done,” the department said in a video accompanying its findings. “Great progress has been made, but with the global economic crisis those efforts have been scaled back, and that progress is now under threat.”
Overall, the U.S. report cites 134 products from 74 countries tainted by child and other abusive labor. It said Asian countries, especially China and Burma, have relatively high numbers of goods made by forced labor.
Although it is difficult to track just how many children are exploited for work worldwide, the International Labour Organization put the figure between 980,000 and about 1.2 million in a 2005 estimate.
Overall, nearly 21 million people of all ages are victims, according to the Geneva-based organization, which is part of the United Nations.
The U.S. report follows new steps announced by President Barack Obama on Tuesday to fight human trafficking.
For the three newest countries, U.S. officials found labor problems over cattle in South Sudan as well as bricks and garments in Vietnam. In Suriname, gold mining and other work raised major concerns.
“Children in Suriname are engaged in the worst forms of child labor,” one of the reports said. Those caught in mines face dangerous conditions such as mercury exposure, extreme heat and the risk of being crushed, it added, and child prostitution at mining camps is also a worry.
Products tainted by child and other abusive labor include shrimp, garlic, bricks and tobacco, among many others. This year, U.S. officials also added beef, fish and thread or yarn products.
Labor abuses have long been a concern in certain industries such as farming and textiles, and 80 countries in 2010 pledged to fight for an end to the most egregious forms of child labor by 2016.
The number of children in the worst forms of labor has fallen worldwide, the Labor Department said in the video.
“But since 2005 the rate of progress has slowed considerably,” it said.
Gayle Smith, a senior director at the National Security Council and a special assistant at the White House, said lower incomes and food insecurity are just part of the problem.
“Child labor .... has as much to do with tackling poverty from all angles,” she said, adding countries need to work on policies to ensure families can earn a living wage so that children can go to school rather than work.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered stronger protections against human trafficking by prohibiting outside firms that work with the federal government from confiscating or destroying workers’ documents and other similar actions.
The White House also required contractors to have plans in place to comply with such rules.
Such labor abuses “ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity,” Obama told the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Tuesday, citing the impact on society, financial markets, public health, violence and crime.
“It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world,” Obama said, adding that human trafficking “must be called by its true name -- modern slavery.”
Some Republican lawmakers welcomed the administration’s initiative but said the regulations did not go far enough and should criminalize labor abuses for work performed outside the United States by U.S. contractors and crack down on groups that receive U.S. grants.
The White House effort is “a half-measure policy,” U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said in a statement on Tuesday.
Reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by Cynthia Osterman