Sex Trafficking in Hotels – Does your team know the signs?
We were moved by some research we read about this issue and its presence in our industry. While we don’t turn a blind eye to the issue, we don’t think about it as much as we should. Here, the US hospitality liaison from ECPAT, an international organization focused on ending child sex trafficking, brings us some insight on the issue and how we, as hoteliers, can take a proactive role to address it in our industry.
By Michelle Guelbart, MSW, Private Sector Project Coordinator, ECPAT-USA
Front-desk employees might not think twice when checking in a young female guest whose partner is holding her identification and wallet for her.
A housekeeper may carry on with their work while passing by the room that has had a do not disturb sign hanging from the door all week.
A restaurant employee might go about their daily duties when a guest comes into the bar a few times, entertaining different individuals each time, during their stay in a new city.
What these employees might not consider is that these might not be their typical guests; they could be victims of the sex trafficking trade.
A Global Issue
President Obama has referred to human trafficking as “modern day slavery” because victims are forced into labor or sexual servitude through violence, debt bondage, and/or coercion. The International Labor Organization now estimates that there are nearly 21 million human trafficking victims globally.
At any given time, there are as many as 4.5 million trafficking victims sold in the sex trade and nearly 1 million of those victims are children. Pimping and trafficking is becoming a preferred method for illegitimate crime because children can be sold repeatedly while drugs can only be used once.
In our Backyard
This global issue was famously brought to the public’s attention with the 2009 movie “Taken” starring Liam Neeson. Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not immune to child sex trafficking. Current studies estimate that at least 100,000 children are in the sex trade in the United States- and another 200,000-300,000 children are at risk per year. The victims are male and female and come from all socioeconomic status, though runaways, throwaways and foster care children are more likely to be targeted for recruitment by traffickers.
With the growth of technology, traffickers are moving their business off the streets and onto the Internet. The same websites that are used to sell furniture and appliances have sections where pimps are selling their victims. A trafficker may check into a hotel, unbeknownst to employees, and run their operations out of rooms or use other hotel rooms to meet with “buyers.” Standard hospitality training does not sensitize employees to the issue of sex trafficking in hotels and because of this, traffickers believe hotels are anonymous and low-risk.
The travel industry, and especially the hospitality sector, is stepping up to mitigate child sex trafficking. Companies like Hilton Worldwide, Carlson Companies, Wyndham Worldwide and Accor are among those international leaders who have already signed the The Code – Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct. The Code is a set of six guidelines travel companies implement to put in place policies and programs to comprehensively and effectively address this issue.
These companies have partnered with ECPAT to implement The Code. ECPAT is a global organization with a mission to protect children from all forms of commercial sexual exploitation including trafficking.
Members of The Code create ethical policies that publicly state their repudiation for the practice. They routinely add clauses into their contracts that ask their suppliers and partners to do the same. Importantly, signers of The Code provide training to employees so they know how to identify and appropriately react to suspicions of child sex trafficking.
Companies that proactively address child sex trafficking experience an array of foreseen and unforeseen benefits. All have seen improvement in company morale, as employees see child protection as an important issue. For many, The Code takes their risk management procedures to a new level by protecting their brands from legal, reputational, and operational risk by developing processes for identifying and reacting to this issue.
The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, who became a member of The Code in 2013, recommends travel buyers add these inquiries to their RFPs. As a result, travel buyers are more frequently asking for information from hoteliers about their child sex trafficking policies and Code Membership. In addition, some Code Members partner together to show each other preference when booking travel.
Know the Signs
After learning about child sex trafficking, it’s hard for people to miss the signs. Some things you might see include:
A traveler that pays in cash one day at a time
The guest escorts various men into their room
An older male or female stays around the room until the visitors leave, watching the door.
The victim will rarely be left alone.
The victim will also have little control of money and identification.
These signs on their own might have every day normal explanations but when coupled together could be an incidence of sex trafficking which should be reported immediately to the manager on duty to follow appropriate protocols for responding to this issue.
All travel businesses have a role to play in opening their eyes and being prepared to react to child sex trafficking.
Since 2004, ECPAT has worked with companies to develop custom policies and programs that fit all corporate cultures and structures. There are a growing number of examples companies can use to prevent and react to child sex trafficking. Here are recommendations to jump-start your efforts:
The centerpiece of most programs begins with training your team to identify the situations. Training all levels of your team who may come face to face with a victim is vital.
Travel companies can join in the fight to protect our children by signing The Code. Corporate travel departments can also become members and may show preference for suppliers active in addressing child trafficking in the industry.
Tassa Tags are fair trade luggage tags that support ECPAT while sending a message through travel that you are a visible voice against child sex trafficking. Sell them in your gift shop and travel with your tag.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, when many signers of The Code will hold fundraisers to raise donations and awareness for ECPAT International and its local organizations. In the US, ECPAT-USA is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that continues their work thanks to charitable financial support. Other global branches also rely on public support to reach their goals – click here to find information about your local ECPAT organization.
Share your successes
As you plan your year ahead, what does your company have on the agenda to combat this issue?
We’d love to hear what your company or hotel has already done to get involved and any tips you can offer to guide your fellow hoteliers to establish effective policies and procedures.
Michelle Guelbart, MSW, is the Private Sector Project Coordinator at ECPAT-USA
ECPAT USA LogoMichelle is in charge of ECPAT-USA’s engagement with the private sector on issues related to child protection. With her expertise in tourism, Michelle manages relationships with corporations, NGOs, and responsible investors to encourage and provide technical assistance on corporate social responsibility initiatives to protect children. She speaks regularly to local, international, and federal agencies as well as industry professionals. Michelle also represents ECPAT-USA as the Local Tourism Child-Protection Code Representative in the United States. Michelle holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University’s School of Social Work and a Bachelors Degree from the University at Albany.
ECPAT-USA is the leading policy organization fighting the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) by raising awareness of the issue, advocating for the victims, developing policy for private companies, law enforcement, and government bodies to fight the problem, and passing legislation that protects the victims and penalizes the traffickers and exploiters.
ECPAT Intl Logo
Founded 20 years ago to halt child sex tourism in Asia, ECPAT today leads a global social movement dedicated to ending child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Its international secretariat, based in Thailand, provides technical support and information, forms partnerships with key partners such as law enforcement and the tourism industry, and is an international voice for children who are being exploited sexually for commercial gain. Its global network of 81 member organizations in 74 countries implement local initiatives to protect children from sexual exploitation and help child survivors return to health and well-being.
ECPAT International is the recipient of the 2013 Conrad N Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which, for the last 18 years, has been awarded to an organization that is significantly alleviating human suffering.