According to the UN, human trafficking generates about $32 billion a year in revenue -- a staggering amount. That means if the human trafficking industry were a company, it would be at the top of the Fortune 500 list. So what makes human trafficking more profitable than the largest corporations in the world? And what can you do to dig into that profit margin? $32 billion is such a huge number, to most people doesn't really mean anything. But if you look at that number compared to revenue from top companies, human trafficking would outpace them all. In fact, the amount of money made from slavery each year is more than the combined revenue (not profit) of Walmart, Chevron, General Motors, General Electric, and Bank of America in 2009. And those companies make up half of the Fortune 500 top ten companies. Walmart, which is the biggest company in the world, pulled in only about a tenth of what is generated from slavery. Human trafficking is massive, and not just in human terms; but in cold, hard cash.
So why is human trafficking so profitable? Traffickers make money for two, simple economic reasons all the companies above live by: supply and demand. The supply of their product is cheap and plentiful and the demand for it is high. For this reason, human trafficking as a business model is the fantasy of any executive or entrepreneur. The obvious drawback, of course, is that the supply in this business is human beings and the demand is the abuse, exploitation, and enslavement of those human beings. And, of course, the fact that it's illegal. But despite those ethical and legal barriers, human trafficking is a business almost guaranteed to make a profit.
But there are two ways to change that guarantee: reduce the supply and reduce the demand. Reducing the supply means making sure people aren't vulnerable to slavery. This can mean everything from reducing poverty and developing social infrastructure to ensuring children live with safe and loving families to building economic opportunities for workers. These programs are important, but only go so far. That's because reducing the supply will only drive the price of the product, in this case the enslaved person, up. Sure, it may cause some traffickers to take up knitting instead, but the market will still exist.
To really destroy the market of human trafficking, you have to do what every Fortune 500 company fears will happen to their product: end the demand. No company provides a product that no one else wants to buy. It's a lesson Ford learned with the Edsel and I learned in 3rd grade with my Mud Pie stand (they were actually mud and I hadn't done a good job of picking out the rocks). Ending demand for slavery means ending demand for the goods and services trafficked people produce -- everything from t-shirts to commercial sex to house cleaning. The idea of buying from sources that avoid slavery sounds simple, but is actually complicated. It's why we have a number of petitions asking companies to make their products slave-free.
Slavery shouldn't be topping the business charts. And if we reduce supply and and demand, it doesn't have to be.