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Capitalism & Human Trafficking

With global inequality worsening and disparities becoming more prevalent in capitalist systems, vulnerabilities are being exacerbated. Basic necessities are being commodified: workers endure horrendous conditions while being underpaid, and vulnerable populations are illicitly bought and sold for nonconsensual sexual services.

Human trafficking is a booming business, now estimated to be over a 150 billion dollar industry (“Profits and Poverty”). Under capitalism, trafficking and exploitation thrive. Capitalism enables human bodies, especially those in vulnerable or unstable situations, to be seen as highly expendable, reusable, and profitable objects by those looking to exploit. Traffickers often hone in on these vulnerabilities using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to fill an emotional, psychological, and or physical need that the targeted individual is in search of. This may be providing a safe place to stay, a loving relationship, or a sense of belonging. Through this grooming process, the targeted individual is reduced to a means to an end that will ultimately result in their exploitation and the trafficker’s profit. Moreover, many traffickers use legal industries, such as public transportation, hotels and motels, social media, and banks, to aid the recruitment and continuation of trafficking. And while industries that intersect with human trafficking, like hotels and motels, are beginning to implement trafficking awareness employee training, many still do not have the proper training for employees or intentionally turn a blind eye to the exploitation in fear of losing traffickers’ business.

With capitalism being an economic and political system where “a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state” (Oxford Languages), private ownership and profit maximization are key drivers in our community. In regards to trafficking, human bodies and “services” are commodified and sold through force, fraud, or coercion for profit.

Looking at trafficking through a simple supply and demand economic model, there is a supply of product or service (trafficked persons) fueled by a demand (buyers) and private intermediaries to facilitate the exchange (traffickers) (Wheaton et al. 2010, 115). Every trafficker operates as their own business owner to maximize profit with an individual demand curve that fluctuates depending upon how “unique” their “product” is in comparison to other competitors’ (Wheaton et al. 2010, 124). Dr. Justine Pierre’s research on trafficking in the Caribbean articulates this point through interviewing over 300 human traffickers. The interviews reveal that all of the traffickers view themselves as business people rather than human rights abusers (Williamson). In order to maximize profit, traffickers may choose to target higher income brackets and therefore demand higher prices from buyers in exchange for the (Kara 2010). Alternatively, traffickers may focus on lower-income brackets with lower prices but supply a larger quantity of “product,” thus driving up the demand for sexual services (Kara 2010). In either case, profit maximization is at the forefront.

The role that race plays in trafficking and capitalism is another aspect that cannot be ignored, starting with the Transatlantic slave trade that ran parallel to the rise of European capitalism. Africans were bought by Europeans to work on American plantations—and later the Caribbean and Eastern African plantations—harvesting various raw materials like sugar, coffee, and cotton that would be sent to Europe who would then ship guns, wine, and textiles to Africa in return (Transatlantic Slave Trade 2021). Black and Brown bodies were rendered expendable forms of labor that could produce capital for profit. While the Transatlantic slave trade no longer exists today, its long-term impact is haunting and ever-present. Black, Brown, and Native communities are disproportionately more likely to experience food deserts, poverty, disconnection from education systems, lack of appropriate and sufficient health care, and family instability than white communities. Coupled with the historical commodification and hypersexualization of Black women and girls, communities of color, especially Black communities, are left particularly vulnerable to trafficking. In a 2018 two-year FBI report on suspected country-wide human trafficking incidents, 40% of sex trafficking victims were Black (Louisiana Department 2018) despite only 13% of the US population identifying as Black (United States Census Bureau).

From an economic perspective, there are two ways that the human trafficking market can be disrupted: increasing the cost or risk to traffickers or reducing the demand for cheap labor and sexual services (Wheaton et al. 2010, 130-131). Ideally, “if real-world prices could be doubled and achieve a decrease in demand . . . the profitability of the sex trafficking industry would be severely compromised” (Kara 2010, 37). From a human rights and preventative education perspective, conversations surrounding trafficking and exploitation need to become more widespread. Because it is unlikely that demand for commercial sex or cheap labor will decrease by itself, support to vulnerable populations must be extended to provide resources and empowerment. FAIR Girls’ “Tell Your Friends” multimedia prevention education curriculum seeks to prevent youth from entering the world of sexual exploitation and prevent system penetration. By providing information to middle and high school-aged youth regarding risk factors, grooming techniques, and healthy relationships, in an age-appropriate and engaging manner, youth are empowered to stay safe from exploitation and victimization and help their friends stay safer. Additionally, there needs to be an increased focus on and emphasis on “people over profit” to continually instill human dignity and humanity into every educational, interpersonal, and business framework we support. If people are viewed as a product rather than an individual, exploitation of vulnerabilities will undoubtedly continue.


  • Kara, Siddharth. 2010. Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. 2018. Human Trafficking, Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes, and Commercial Sexual Exploitation: Annual Report.
  • “Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour.” 2014., May.
  • “Transatlantic Slave Trade” 2021. Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • “QuickFacts: United States.” 2019. Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau.
  • Wheaton, Elizabeth M., Edward J. Schauer, and Thomas V. Galli. 2010. “Economics of Human Trafficking.” International Migration 48 (4): 114–41.
  • Williamson, Celia. 2021. “Episode 81: I’m not a Human Trafficker, I’m a Businessman: The Perspective of 342 Human Traffickers” Dr. Celia Williamson. February 2, 2021.


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