Because freedom of choice and economic gain are at the heart of productivity, human trafficking impedes national and international economic growth. Within the next 10 years, crime experts expect human trafficking to surpass drug and arms trafficking in its incidence, cost to human well-being, and profitability to criminals (Schauer and Wheaton, 2006: 164–165). The loss of agency from human trafficking as well as from modern slavery is the result of human vulnerability (Bales, 2000: 15). As people become vulnerable to exploitation and businesses continually seek the lowest-cost labour sources, trafficking human beings generates profit and a market for human trafficking is created.

This paper presents an economic model of human trafficking that encompasses all known economic factors that affect human trafficking both across and within national borders. We envision human trafficking as a monopolistically competitive industry in which traffickers act as intermediaries between vulnerable individuals and employers by supplying differentiated products to employers. In the human trafficking market, the consumers are employers of trafficked labour and the products are human beings. Using a rational-choice framework of human trafficking we explain the social situations that shape relocation and working decisions of vulnerable populations leading to human trafficking, the impetus for being a trafficker, and the decisions by employers of trafficked individuals. The goal of this paper is to provide a common ground upon which policymakers and researchers can collaborate to decrease the incidence of trafficking in humans.