INTERNATIONAL REPORT—Illegal sex trafficking, often involving child victims of human slavery, is a very real and prevalent concern both in the United States and abroad, and now more than ever hoteliers need to remain vigilant. Recognizing the signs and taking the appropriate steps is imperative to protect the victims, your business and your guests.
The popular notion is that sexual servitude and human slavery are mostly problems outside of the U.S., especially in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, where difficult economic conditions can weigh heavily on those whom traffickers prey upon. While that’s true in part, sources say there also is plenty of the same activity occurring within U.S. borders.
“It is a misperception that trafficking only happens outside of the United States, when actually it really is much more apparent and part of the public dialogue here in the U.S.,” said Jennifer Silberman, VP of corporate responsibility for Hilton Worldwide. “There are more than 200,000 young people a year that are estimated to be trafficked under the age of 18, and that usually includes sexual exploitation and abuse. So, it’s definitely a real issue in this country, and there are a lot of reasons for that.”
Both Hilton and Wyndham Hotel Group, among others, work with the nonprofit Polaris Project to come up with training materials for company employees. Polaris runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center—a national, toll-free hotline available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—and also trains law enforcement in the states. According to the chains interviewed, incorporating the organization’s key points within their own corporate cultures has gone a long way, and ongoing training remains the linchpin.
“Unfortunately, as long as there are criminals profiting from this practice, no single hotel or company will ever be able to fully guarantee that these events won’t occur in the future,” said Christopher Nowak, senior VP of legal at Wyndham Hotel Group. “That said, there are measures that a hotel can take to help lessen the chances of it happening and more quickly put an end to it when it does. This starts with proper training for hotel employees so that they know how to identify when trafficking may be taking place and what to do when they suspect that it is.”
According to Polaris literature, key indicators of trafficking/slavery include:
- Presence of an overly controlling and abusive “boyfriend”
- Inability to look in the eyes or face of people, especially the “boyfriend”
- Injuries/signs of physical abuse or torture
- Signs of malnourishment
- Restricted or controlled communication
- Demeanor of fear, anxiety, depression, submissive, tense, nervous
- Claims of being an adult although appearance suggests adolescent features
- Lack of identification documents (ID, birth certificate, Social Security card)
- Presence of different aliases and ages
- Lack of knowledge of a given community or whereabouts
- Frequent movement
- Claims of “just visiting” and inability to clarify addresses
- Few or no personal possessions
- Inconsistencies in their story
Clues can be subtle—or obvious—but what’s essential is that staff is trained to both recognize the hallmarks and take action when prudent.
“Other things that sometimes cause suspicion are certainly any kind of uncomfortable (conduct) between the guest and the young person; you just need to be able to see it,” said Silberman. “Sometimes when young people are heavily tattooed, those could be tattoos representing the pimps or the perpetrators. Sometimes, in the way that they check in—giving a fake name, or how they pay—so those things all together add up; not just one or two signs.”
Another organization both Wyndham and Hilton have partnered with to oppose trafficking is ECPAT International, a global network that works together to eliminate the sexual exploitation of children. In 2011, both companies expanded that commitment by endorsing ECPAT’s Code for the Protection of Children in Travel and Tourism, now supported by 40 travel companies in 13 nations. Participants agree to implement and uphold six core objectives:
- To establish a corporate ethical policy against commercial sexual exploitation of children
- To train the personnel in the country of origin and travel destinations
- To introduce clauses in contracts with suppliers, stating a common repudiation of sexual exploitation of children
- To provide information to travelers through catalogues, brochures, in-flight films, ticket-slips, websites, etc.
- To provide information to local "key persons" at destinations
- To report annually
Silberman explained the action is merely a foundation since all businesses should be embracing its framework by default. “I look at the code as basically six guiding principles that quite frankly most companies are already doing. Obviously whether or not they sign the code is a decision each company has to make,” she said. “In our case, we were doing many of these things already, so it wasn’t a leap to sign the code or put together an action plan to implement it.”
Taking it to an even more hands-on level, Hilton, Wyndham, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, InterContinental Hotels Group, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and more are part of the International Tourism Partnership, which maintains a Human Trafficking Working Group. The ITP also spearheads the Youth Career Initiative to help young people in vulnerable areas, communities and populations get six months of hospitality training en route to a career. The YCI recently partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons on a grant program for past trafficking victims in Mexico, Brazil and Vietnam, to help those victims attain skills training and education at participating hotels located there.
“Marriott has a long history of supporting programs and partnerships that help vulnerable young people and their families prepare for and find meaningful employment,” said Marriott spokeswoman Felicia Farrar McLemore. “As governments, law enforcement agencies and nongovernmental organizations address human-rights issues, we are aligned with the growing number of corporations that provide their commitment and support to these efforts.”
“Ultimately, for many of these women, whether it’s in the United States or globally, the reason why they are forced into this industry is because of economic reasons,” Silberman said. “Anything we can do that provides training and education and support for victims or potential victims—that there’s another way for them to earn an economic livelihood—obviously we see a benefit to that.”