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Hotels Tackle Human Trafficking

Managers train hotel staff to spot warning signs

A group of people standing at a reception desk.

A growing number of hotels, including Hilton, Marriott and Sonesta, are training managers and staff to more aggressively root out human traffickers at company properties. 

"Human trafficking is the second largest illicit crime, surpassed only by illegal drugs," said Michael C. Sturman, a professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, who specializes in hotel administration management. "Hotels are often the venue of choice for human trafficking, and so the hotel industry cannot afford to ignore this crime of exploitation." 

According to the International Labor Organization, 40.3 million people are in situations of modern slavery, including 4.8 million in sexual exploitation and 16 million in forced labor in the private sector.

The issue is not only a humanitarian problem for the hotel and tourism industries, but it's a legal one, as well.

"Currently, there are three major hotel chains being sued in a class-action lawsuit because victims of human trafficking are coming forward with their stories of where they were sold for sex," said Jeremy Mahugh, a senior vice president at Deliver Fund, a Dallas, Texas-based nonprofit intelligence organization that uses data technology to combat trafficking. "Well-known hotel brands are finding themselves in the headlines as a result."

Big Hotels Raise Awareness

All employees who work in the Hilton chain's hotels, including franchise hotels, must undergo training to spot and report suspected human trafficking.

"We're training our team members how to identify the signs of such situations and report them safely to hotel management," said Caroline Meledo, director of corporate responsibility and human rights at Hilton. "Hotel management would then assess the situation and respond accordingly, primarily by reporting to law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as appropriate."

"When you have large cultural or sporting events that attract a large number of travelers, you are going to have human traffickers trying to make money."

Large cultural or sporting events that draw visitors to a city—think the Olympics or Mardi Gras in New Orleans—are prime times for hotel managers to shine a much-needed light on human trafficking. They "offer the opportunity to reinforce the message about our year-long efforts with Hilton team members, guests and other stakeholders," Meledo said.

Tips on Training Hotel Personnel

No matter what the time of year, hotel managers can be particularly effective by training staff to be aware of and act on human trafficking in the following ways:

Show hotel staff how to recognize evidence of human trafficking. "This can include cues like noticing unusual bruises on guests, young women or children with no luggage, long-hanging 'do not disturb' signs, multiple guests entering and leaving a room, and obvious signs in the room that multiple sex partners have visited," Sturman said. Warning signs could be seeing multiple men entering and leaving a room in a short period of time, older men accompanying much younger girls but not speaking to them, and signs of frequent contraception use in the hotel room.

Even something as innocuous as a vehicle parked backwards in a hotel parking lot, to hide its license plate, or a guest checking in for only a few hours, instead of an overnight stay, can be a red flag, experts said.

Be diligent and ready to hear staff members' suspicions. Managers should encourage staff to come to them if they have concerns or witness suspicious activity.

"It's really up to the manager to make sure staff are aware of the problems associated with human trafficking, are cognizant of the signs and are confident that their companies will do the right thing when presented with evidence," Sturman said.

Know when to bring law enforcement into the picture. Create a reporting protocol, making sure personnel have the proper law enforcement contacts, experts said. 

"Hotel managers need to know what and how to report so that law enforcement can engage as quickly as possible," Mahugh said. 

For instance: 

Build a "to do" checklist. Make a checklist of steps to thwart trafficking. That list should include tracking the Internet for any advertisements from sexual services sites that mention your hotel; having an official reporting protocol when human trafficking activity is expected; and locking all the doors at night, except for the main entrance, to ensure all hotel traffic flows through the main entrance. That makes it easier for management and staff to notice suspicious activity.

Make frequent training a priority. Training hotel staff on human trafficking warning signs shouldn't be a one-off. Data show that the more hotel employees undergo trafficking activity training, the more robust a hotel's anti-trafficking policy will be.

Partner with local law enforcement. Ask a law enforcement official how big a role hotels can play in stopping human trafficking, and the response will be "very big."

Thus, establishing close ties with law enforcement should be a top priority.

Law enforcement has trained specialists with deep experience in combatting human trafficking, and a close partnership will create better-educated hotel managers and staffers.

Make proper judgments. An overly zealous staffer can make mistakes, so use prudence and beware of accusations based on little or no evidence. For instance, one sign of human trafficking is older men and women excessively supervising young women who appear to be adults. Yet such supervision may be necessary if a young woman must be closely watched because of a mental or physical condition.

"In a situation like this, contact the police through a nonemergency line to report the activity," said Elizabeth Burton, course author for High Speed Training, one of the U.K.'s leading providers of online human trafficking information and awareness. "This may not be the first report they've seen, and a heads-up puts law enforcement in a position where they can act."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Penn.


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