A Business of Security: Applying an Economic Model to Human Trafficking in Oregon

Thanh Vo


Human trafficking is undoubtedly a horrid, vile crime that exploits vulnerable people into forced sex or labor. Therefore, it is unsurprising that human trafficking is known as modern day slavery. Criminals and crime organizations all over the world are engaged in human trafficking, making it the fastest growing crime worldwide, second only to drug trafficking.[1] Profits from human trafficking benefit not only traffickers and criminal organizations; there have been links between human trafficking profits and funding of terrorist organizations, making it not only a real threat to human securities and freedoms, but to national security at large.

Human trafficking is a criminal activity—a criminal industry—which operates similarly to any other legitimate industry. For this reason, macro-economic theory is relevant. Specifically, supply and demand actors and the factors that influence the shift of supply and demand curves provide guidance for understanding the relationship between the market for and prevalence of human trafficking. Supply and demand actors evaluate their behavior and actions based on cost-benefit analysis and choice—deciding whether to engage in or using human trafficking based on benefits gained (profitability, cheap labor, sex, etc.) compared to risks and costs (imprisonment, fines, etc.).

This thesis evaluates Oregon’s response to human trafficking under this premise and assesses the effectiveness of Oregon’s anti-human trafficking policies and efforts economically from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis. The hypothesis presented in this thesis argues that Oregon is not currently doing enough to deter either the supply or demand side of the human trafficking market by allowing a low-risk, high-profit industry to thrive. This thesis presents analysis and research discussing how the low-cost, low-risk activity of human trafficking is a lucrative and attractive crime for both traffickers and users.

One challenge relating to this research lies in the lack of adequate statistical data regarding human trafficking both in Oregon and as a whole. Much of this dearth is due to the hidden nature of human trafficking and the difficulty of identifying the crime and its victims. In Oregon, statistical data regarding human trafficking victims outside of major metropolitan areas, primarily Portland, are lacking. Most data focus on sex trafficking victims, especially minors. Additionally, the awareness around human trafficking of the general public and law enforcement is limited. Thus, the data provided in this research are pulled in bits and pieces from a variety of sources to support the research as a whole.

However, an assessment of human trafficking in Oregon using supply and demand markers identifies that the market is thriving within the state. The cultural and legal contexts of the state have led to an allowance of the human trafficking market to infiltrate the commercial sex and labor industries unique to Oregon. Oregon’s numerous strip clubs provide a safe cover for sex trafficking, while Oregon’s agricultural and blue-collar industries (fishing, forestry, etc.) lack sufficient oversight and, thus, unknowingly tolerate labor trafficking.

This thesis recommends a series of recommendations under a three-pronged approach based on influencing supply and demand actors through cost-benefit analysis. By reducing costs allocated to victims of human trafficking, increasing costs to traffickers (i.e. the supply curve) and increasing costs to buyers (i.e. the demand curve).

This thesis also acknowledges that there is no comprehensive policy or set of policies to reduce human trafficking worldwide, or even nationally. The contextual and social understandings of each region must be taken into consideration in order to create dynamic and successful anti-human trafficking policies. However, the foundation for these policies can, and should, evaluate the contextual cost-benefit scenarios of supply and demand actors of human trafficking in order to influence the market and reduce the number of commodities in the market, or in this case human trafficking victims.


[1] “What is Human Trafficking? Human Trafficking Fact Sheet,” CASEAct.org, last modified in 2012, http://www.caseact.org/learn/humantrafficking/.

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