Human trafficking is a hidden crime. It isn’t widely understood or recognized, and its secretive nature is part of the reason it is so ubiquitous across industries around the world. The transient nature of hotels puts them at particular risk to become a location used for this crime, as traffickers often rely on legitimate businesses to house their illicit operations. Every hotel in the United States is at risk for trafficking on their properties or in their supply chain. As the fastest growing crime in the world, human trafficking takes several forms and continues to evolve. While the issue is complex, hoteliers can reach out to others in their efforts to prevent trafficking at their properties. Industry organizations, nonprofits combating trafficking, and law enforcement are all potential partners who can provide hoteliers with invaluable resources in this fight.
By first understanding the risks and realities of human trafficking, hoteliers can take steps to set protocols to manage those risks, educate and train staff, and partner with nonprofit organizations and local law enforcement who can provide the necessary expertise and guidance. The U.S. Department of State defines human trafficking as, “a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” To understand the realities and trends of human trafficking in the United States, the Polaris Project—a nonprofit that fights modern-day slavery—analyzed more than seven years of human trafficking reports involving hotels that were submitted to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and Polaris’ BeFree texting helpline. The project found that 92 percent of reports involved sex trafficking versus labor trafficking and victims were mostly female (92 percent). Of the nationalities reported, U.S. citizens were the most common. Children accounted for 45 percent of all victims.
According to Fran Hughes, director of the global nonprofit and hotel member organization International Tourism Partnership (ITP), it’s important to remember that that because trafficking happens in the shadows and behind closed doors, the available data and statistics could just be the tip of the iceberg. “Underlying trends are that as people are moving more to find work, there is a risk of exploitation,” Hughes explains. “And where there is a risk, I think there is a responsibility for hotels both on the individual level and on the brand level to take action.”
A greater push for awareness campaigns, specifically surrounding child sexual exploitation, may have improved understanding of signs to look for and how to report suspicious activity, but there is still a great deal of work to be done, particularly when it comes to recognizing and reporting labor trafficking, Hughes says. Part of ITP’s work is to bring the hotel sector together to collaborate on key issues like trafficking. Hughes says that the first step for any hotelier should be to learn about the issue and the potential impact on their properties.
“If you don’t think it applies to you, you’re not going to communicate it well, and you’re not going to put the right policies in place,” Hughes explains. While discussing human trafficking can become uncomfortable, Hughes says it’s critical to overcome the stigmas and fears surrounding the crime to have transparent conversations. “It’s a very real problem globally. It’s not unique to any specific sector, and it doesn’t choose one-star over five-star hotels. This can happen in any hotel in the world,” Hughes explains. “We’ve got to face that and be realistic. Because otherwise, there’s a risk of putting your head in the sand and not doing anything.”
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has also worked to raise awareness of human trafficking and provide hotel operators with tools and resources to educate themselves and employees in partnership with nonprofits like the Polaris Project and ECPAT-USA, which is devoted specifically to ending child slavery. Craig Kalkut, AHLA’s vice president of government affairs, says that hotel staff at every level should be educated and trained on what trafficking is so that they can spot the signs. “Because there are different business models and structures, training unfolds in different banners,” Kalkut explains.
For large brands, widespread online courses may make more sense than in-person training. Industry organizations like AHLA offer human trafficking education programs, and local nonprofits and law enforcement may also be willing to partner to train staff. “The crux of the training is learning to spot potential instances of trafficking and reporting it to authorities,” Kalkut says. Those signs may differ depending on a hotel employee’s role. A security guard has a distinct perspective of a hotel’s operations, as does a housekeeper. Front desk staff with access to a hotel’s reservation system can be a resource in spotting booking trends that point to sex trafficking patterns.
Learning the signs of trafficking is half the equation. Hotel employees must be aware of—and comfortable with—the protocols for reporting suspect trafficking activity. Fran Hughes of ITP emphasizes this step and the importance of fostering an environment where employees know where to turn and feel safe speaking up.
“What’s the chain of command? How should this be escalated through the business?” Hughes notes. “I think hoteliers need to be sure that the correct procedures are followed so that the correct authorities can come into play.”
When in doubt, hoteliers should report the information, and leave investigation decisions to law enforcement, according to Craig Kalkut of AHLA. “The police are there to make those decisions over whether there is enough cause for concern or enough evidence to intercede,” Kalkut says.
In the end, hoteliers need not be alone in the fight against trafficking. Nonprofits, government agencies, and fellow hoteliers work together and share resources and best practices for tackling an issue that is too big for any one company to take on alone, Hughes says. “If we move together, nobody feels compromised and nobody feels unduly challenged,” Hughes explains. “We raise the standards of the industry on what has been identified as one of the key issues.”