Is Human Trafficking the Most Profitable Type of Crime?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


No. Depending on the method used to analyze different global criminal activities, money laundering (which helps facilitate many different types of crime) generates the highest profits. In terms of specific transnational crime types, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the annual value of drug trafficking at $320 billion.[i]

In their 2014 report, Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour, the ILO estimates the worldwide profits from all forms of forced labor (commercial sex and labor and services) are over $150 billion per year.[ii]

As explained in the previous question the ILO estimates 68% of trafficking victims worldwide are exploited via forced labor, while only 22% are victims of forced sexual exploitation. But the profits from these forms of trafficking are reversed: Nearly two-thirds of global profits ($99 billion) come from sex exploitation while $51 billion result from all other forms of forced labor.

In any case, estimating revenue and profit from illicit activities is very difficult. However, somewhere along the way this comparison became part of the conversation (and possibly, part of the justification) in the response to human trafficking.

But does it matter to the slave whether they are a victim of the second or third most profitable type of crime in the world? The discussion of money and trafficking has its place and will be examined later. But a victim of trafficking doesn’t care how profitable global slavery is; they care only about their freedom.

[i] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Transnational organized crime: Let’s put them out of business. Available at

[ii] International Labour Organization. (2014). Profits and poverty: The economics of forced labour. Available at–en/index.htm

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