By Parminder Batra
As of 2020, the International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation estimated that 24.9 million people are victims of human trafficking across both private industries and state-imposed forced labor per year. Of that bone-chilling number, 30% of the global human trafficking victims are children, and 49% of all victims of international trafficking are women. There is simply no denying it – human trafficking is a worldwide issue that cannot, and should not, be ignored.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the human trafficking epidemic. As stay-at-home orders were issued around the world, the World Bank estimated that 70 million people were driven into extreme poverty. Entire industries came to a grinding halt, unemployment levels peaked, and families and individuals found themselves not only grappling with the fear of the pandemic but the fear of financial ruin. This landscape is perilous, as those impacted by job loss and/or mounting debt are more likely to accept risky job offers (or loan agreements). Survival should never come at the expense of one’s safety but, in the pandemic era, we see a continued rise in trafficking as individuals become trapped in increasingly exploitative, unethical, and otherwise dangerous situations. And while the worldwide economy struggles to recover, the human trafficking business is booming – in fact, forced labor produces an estimated $150 billion annually.
This is a shift that hospitality professionals, especially, should be aware of, as hotels are a well-known hotbed for trafficking schemes. While this may not be part of the job that hoteliers are expected to contend with – let alone champion – it’s essential to recognize that hospitality professionals are frequently faced with an opportunity to identify and report signs of human trafficking. In many cases, hoteliers might be the last line of defense and, with the right training, processes, and vigilance, the intervention efforts made by hospitality professionals can truly save lives.
An Underreported Crisis
Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain commercial sex or labor. As aforementioned, victims are trapped within these schemes by a promise of a better life or, in some cases, a romantic relationship. In Canada alone, the RCMP estimates that 1,400 cases of human trafficking each year are not reported. Further, it is also estimated that between 1,500 and 2,200 people are trafficked from Canada into the United States each year.
Perhaps this comes as no surprise – human trafficking does, after all, rely on deceptive and discreet environments. Unfortunately, this makes hotels ideal for bringing victims and remaining undetected, especially when traffickers can pay for rooms in cash or change locations frequently. From a labor perspective, hotels also may find themselves in the crossfire, as contracting outside companies for hiring purposes (maintenance staff, housekeeping staff, etc.) may result in a hotel working with a company who, to their disbelief, leverages abusive and exploitative practices against their staff.
With this in mind, hotels have a responsibility to train their employees on how to effectively (and safely) identify and report human trafficking and work with hotel partners (such as the financial sector) to ease friction in reporting incidents. Often, the first step in becoming an advocate for human trafficking victims is to abandon the belief that “it happens, but it would never happen at this hotel.” Over the years, we’ve learned a difficult lesson: human trafficking can happen at any hotel.
Identify, Report, Protect
Across our industry, hotels must provide awareness, tools, and support to prevent the continued exploitation of human trafficking victims. From an identification perspective, hotel staff should pay close attention to the following signs:
- Room paid in cash on a nightly basis
- Guest who checks in for a room but doesn’t appear to be staying there themselves
- Older guardians with young women or children who have no possession of personal items, including luggage, money, cell phone, or personal ID documents
- A younger party appears dazed or distant from their companion
- Appearance is not indicative of young person’s age
- Asks for a room with a view of a parking lot or far away from a main entrance
- Nervous or isolated behavior, including the avoidance of interaction with others
- Many visitors coming and going from the room(s)
- Reports of excessive noise, telephone/music on throughout the entire day
- Inconsistencies in story and not forthcoming about personal information when checking in/registering
- Individuals leaving their room infrequently, not at all, or at odd hours
- Individuals hanging out in hallways or appearing to monitor the area
- Contract workers making mention of wages or work conditions that differ from how their company/agency advertised it to the hotel
As stated in the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association Human Trafficking Training Package, effectively identifying this behavior and reporting suspicions to officials can prevent:
- The further victimization of individuals
- Offenders committing criminal acts in hotels
- Potential damage to hotel rooms
- Home-invasion-style robberies being committed against female victims in hotel rooms with firearms and other weapons
- Serious risk to other hotel patrons due to criminal activity
- Civil liability due to injuries caused by criminal activity
- Loss of reputation to the general public that will affect their hotel revenue
Hoteliers, Take A Stand Against Human Trafficking
With this in mind, providing hotel staff with comprehensive human trafficking training and security protocols is unequivocally important. Hotels can work with partners and organizations like Safe House, a non-profit with a mission to increase survivor identification beyond one percent through education, provide emergency services and placement to survivors, and ensure every survivor has access to safe housing and holistic care. Hospitality professionals are also encouraged to seek out groups like MPHAT: Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking. This group, in particular, is made up of dedicated conference/event planners, hotel sales professionals, and audio visual professionals who are raising awareness about human trafficking. Together, these professionals collaborate with hoteliers and planning professionals who contract venues, suppliers and those venues, suppliers to “talk about the situation; to ensure there are training programs in place for both sides of the table; to know what to do about it when a person sees something that doesn’t seem right.”
From a reporting standpoint, it’s also critical that hotels invest in a dedicated hotel safety platform, specifically, one that allows hotel staff to discreetly call for help and keep a detailed log of on-property incidents or suspicious behavior. Fortunately, with the help of new-age panic buttons that leverage real-time location technology, hotels can ensure their staff is well equipped to deal with any dangerous scenario.
In the post-pandemic world, it’s increasingly important that hospitality leaders identify and address the pandemic’s impact on our industry and, in turn, the aspects of business that have changed or now require more attention. Human trafficking is no exception, and, in many ways, the action hotels take to mitigate this issue will shape our economy and societies in meaningful ways moving forward. Fortunately, hotels are provided a unique opportunity to establish an on-property safety culture that not only provides guests with peace of mind but protects human trafficking victims from further abuse and harm. With increased awareness, training, regulations, and reporting measures, hoteliers can reduce the risks of forced labor and, finally, hold traffickers accountable.