No hotel is immune to human trafficking, which impacts communities of all kinds across the United States.
By Mar Brettmann, PhD
When Allan received a call from law enforcement informing him that the name of his hotel was listed in an online ad selling a child for sex, he was shocked. He did not know that sex trafficking was taking place in his city. As a general manager, he had seen a lot of things yet he never imagined that sex trafficking could happen in his reputable downtown hotel.
Allan invited the detective to his hotel for a sting operation. The operation was quiet and did not disturb his guests. But most importantly, police recovered a 14-year-old girl. According to the detective, the girl had run away with a “boyfriend” and he had begun trafficking her online. After she was recovered, she was able to return to her family. “My daughter was 11 at the time,” Allan said, “That hit home for me.”
“After that eye-opening experience,” Allan explained, “I got involved because I didn’t want to just push this crime out of my hotel and to another hotel. That experience made me want to eliminate the crime entirely.”
Allan got his company involved with BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking), a non-profit organization. He and his supervisor played an active role as BEST developed training for the hotel industry.
“As someone who started working at a hotel early in my career, I have seen prostitution. I often looked the other way because I thought it was a victimless crime between two consenting adults,” Allan’s supervisor explained. “I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t know that a majority of prostituted people are first exploited as youth. I didn’t know that the people I saw could be victims of human trafficking and need my help.”
BEST brought together leaders like Allan from the hospitality industry, a hotel attorney, law enforcement detectives, trafficking survivors, and social service providers to develop best practices to identify and prevent human trafficking in hotels. After developing the training, Allan implemented it for his staff and incorporated it into new hire training.
Allan also implemented numerous new practices to block traffickers from entering his hotel. He stopped allowing cash-paying customers and he required all guests who register on a third-party website to present an ID and credit card when they checked in. “We decided to forego revenue so that we would know who is checking into our hotel,” Allan explained. “This created a barrier for entry that was significant enough to decrease crimes like this.”
Sex trafficking in hotels
“I have never prosecuted a case of sex trafficking that did not involve a hotel,” said King County Sr. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Valiant Richey. According to Richey, Allan’s experience as a general manager is not unique. Sometimes children and women are prostituted out of hotels, sometimes they meet buyers at hotels or sometimes the trafficker houses them in a hotel while coercing them to work on the street.
One study in King County, Washington, found that 63 percent of police reports on sex trafficking crimes between 2008 and 2012 mentioned hotels. The properties ranged from economy motels in the suburbs to luxury hotels in the heart of downtown Seattle and Bellevue.
“This crime impacts communities across the United States,” explained Richey, “No hotel is immune.”
Arvind Patel, AAHOA member and CEO of Canterbury Hotel Group, agrees. “If you have 15,000 members like AAHOA, you know that someone’s hotel is being used for this activity on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s just that we don’t realize it. There’s a lack of education.”
After more than 30 years working on this issue, Dr. Debra Boyer, executive director of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, knows that hoteliers are likely to misunderstand what they might see. “No one wants to believe that our own children – American children – are being exploited as prostitutes at 12, 13 or 14 years old,” Dr. Boyer said.
Yet, according to Dr. Boyer, we should not only worry about prostituted children: “These exploited children grow into adults who often find it impossible to exit prostitution without a great deal of support from the community.”
What is human trafficking?
The definition of human trafficking is (a) the commercial sexual exploitation of a minor or (b) the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel an adult into prostitution or other work. There are two basic types of human trafficking: labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
Labor trafficking can take place in any type of employment setting, and cases have been prosecuted involving hotels in the U.S. In one high-profile case at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the hotel hired a labor broker who was trafficking a contract worker in that hotel and exploiting other workers across the U.S.
The term “human trafficking” makes it sound as if people are being moved from one country to another. In the case of labor trafficking, it appears that a majority of victims are brought into the U.S. from other countries, to work in service or other industries. Labor trafficking is different from human smuggling or illegal immigration because trafficking involves force, fraud and coercion by the trafficker.
In fact, some traffickers are not moving people at all. They simply receive a person and use coercion or fraud to keep them in a work situation. To control people, employers might hold a worker’s passport or documentation so a worker cannot contact authorities. Other traffickers use debt bondage so that the worker has to pay off a debt and cannot leave until the debt has been paid. Finally, some employers withhold wages, extract fees from wages or threaten workers in order to coerce them into work against their will.
Under U.S. law, such practices can be considered evidence of human trafficking and can be cause for prosecution, imprisonment or civil lawsuits against the trafficker. Hoteliers can mitigate against these serious risks by following employment laws and by taking extra steps to inform employees about their rights by providing posters or pamphlets.
The second type of trafficking is sex trafficking, which involves commercial sex work such as prostitution or the making of pornography. The two types of trafficking have in common the use of force, fraud or coercion to control another person.
Data suggests that a majority of sex trafficking crimes in the U.S. involve victims who are American, though foreign national women are also very vulnerable to this crime. Sex trafficking victims are often controlled by a trafficker or “pimp” who uses a variety of methods of coercion. Cases of victims who are captured and held in captivity are rare. More often, a trafficker or pimp preys on a young person’s vulnerability, such as homelessness, an abusive living situation, poverty, a teenager’s sense of adventure and independence, or a child’s unmet need for love. The trafficker will promise the victim everything they need. Then the trafficker will groom the young person by showing them how to act like an adult when they are checking into a hotel or walking through a lobby. The young person will often be advertised online and a buyer will order a person as easily as they’d order a pizza. Often without the victim even realizing it, the sexual exploitation begins.
“For years, we tried to fight sex trafficking by arresting pimps. But we found that the minute one pimp was behind bars another one popped up to replace him,” said Richey. “So we supplemented our approach by arresting buyers. The buyers have more to lose and they are the ones who are driving demand for victims. If there were no sex buyers, there would be no sex trafficking victims.”
AAHOA takes action
According to Arvind Patel, AAHOA is playing a valuable role by educating its members. “During my time as a regional director sitting on the AAHOA board, we brought this issue to the attention of our members in the Northwest. We wanted to help them be aware of how to spot human trafficking. We did that by working with BEST,” Patel said.
Over the past two years, the NW region of AAHOA raised more than $45,000 to support BEST to develop online training for hotels. The training is now available across the U.S. at www.training.bestalliance.org.
“It’s important hoteliers understand that training their staff to prevent human trafficking is not only the ethical thing to do, it’s a smart business decision,” said Sandip Soli, an attorney at Real Property Law Group. “Trafficking poses numerous risks to hotels, including risks to reputation, risks to employee and guest safety and security, and legal risks. If a guest is harmed because of activity happening on a hotel property, the owner could potentially be held liable.”
In hotel industry, owners know that their success rests on their reputation with their guests and with their community. Allowing criminal activity to occur can tarnish that reputation and potentially implicate hotel owners or managers in the crime. In some cases, hotel owners have even lost their investments when police have seized properties that have been unwilling to cooperate. In more mild cases, reviews on TripAdvisor have caused good customers to steer clear of particular properties. “You should be able to tell the difference between a genuine guest and guest up to no good,” said Arvind. “You have to have an instinct, and that’s what you try to hammer into your staff’s head. Not everyone is a good customer.”
BEST’s Inhospitable to Human Trafficking training provides valuable information on the steps hotels can take to identify and prevent this crime. “I hope that most all of the AAHOA members have their staff view that video. It would be a start to avert these activities,” Arvind said. “You’ll never prevent it 100 percent, but even if you manage to save one individual, I think you’re doing your job.” ■
Mar Brettmann, PhD, is executive director of BEST: Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking. She completed her PhD in Theology and Ethics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and is the author of Theories of Justice.
Indicators of human trafficking
- Evidence of violence, abuse, malnourishment, unusual submission or fear.
- A person asking for help, food or money.
- Evidence of unusual control, such one person speaking for others, holding travel documents, monitoring movement, lurking in the background or creating debt bondage.
- Unaccompanied minors in a hotel room during a school day.
- Guest asking for “adult services.”
- Unusual traffic to one or a few rooms.
- Checking in without luggage.
- Person who looks very young behaving like an adult.
If you see something, don’t approach the victim with a potential trafficker or buyer present.
Call 911 if you suspect a child is involved or if someone is being hurt. Provide detailed information. The National Human Trafficking hotline [888-373-7888] is a valuable resource if you have questions about a suspected incident.
Combating human trafficking in the hotel industry
By Vipul Dayal
San Diego was ranked by the FBI as one of the top 13 high-intensity cities for child prostitution. As a father of three children, this statistic really stood out to me. Kids being sold for sex are not prostitutes; they’re rape victims. That is why I teamed up with the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and took on a volunteer leader position for a program called SAFE San Diego Hotel-Motel Human Trafficking Awareness Partnership Initiative to help combat human sex trafficking.I was 4 years old when my father joined the hospitality industry in 1979. I grew up in and around hotels and motels, so I guess you could say it is my calling. I’ve explored other professional areas, but somehow always made my way back to hospitality. Today, my wife and I own VNR Management, Inc., a hospitality development and management company. With my long-standing presence in the industry comes a degree of influence on others, and I am making it a priority to fight human trafficking.
As a volunteer leader and committee member, my job is to organize and facilitate training at hotels in the Greater San Diego area. Most big-name hotels already have a human-trafficking training in place, which makes it even more important to help spread awareness and provide training to smaller hotels and motels. Our goal is to educate hotels so they are well-versed in defense against human traffickers. I will personally be visiting each hotel that joins our program and overseeing the training of their staff.
San Diego County’s regional Human Trafficking and Commercial Exploitation of Children (HT & CEC) Advisory Council and the Office of the District Attorney – County of San Diego SAFE San Diego Hotel-Motel Human Trafficking Awareness Partnership are the two groups working together locally to stop human trafficking. The goal of the advisory council is to implement a holistic, countywide approach, integrating the Four P’s Model of the U.S. Department of Justice: prevention, protection, prosecution and partnerships. It will focus on identifying best practices, addressing the root causes of trafficking and exploitation, advancing public policy, standardizing training and protocols, and enhancing victim services by creating an optimized, seamless service delivery system. (Visit abolishhumantrafficking.com for more information.)
As part of the SAFE program, each hotel and motel in San Diego receives training free of charge. This training includes resources to help staff recognize warning signs of human trafficking and how to report suspicious behavior. In order to get SAFE certified, hotels must register their property at safeactionproject.org, complete training videos on site as a group or individually. If 75 percent of property staff completes the training, the hotel earns a BE SAFE certificate.
As members of the hospitality industry, we are the front line of defense. Sex trafficking is a problem that cannot be solved solely on a local level. Hotel owners and small business owners like you can help spread awareness across the country by getting involved. You can be part of the solution simply by educating yourself and your employees. Contact your local district attorney today and help develop a program that works for your community.
Hoteliers are not the only ones who can join the fight against sex trafficking. If you or anyone you know suspects human trafficking activity, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. You can also visit the theuglytruthsd.org to learn more.
AAHOA Director at Large Vipul Dayal is the President of VNR Management, Inc., recipient of the Fast 100 Asian American Business Award. Vipul has also been honored with the AAHOA Outreach Award for Philanthropy and named as one of SD Metro’s Men Who Make a Difference 2015 and Metro Movers 2016.
- Multi-lingual worker pamphlet: https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/general/rights-protections-temporary-workers.html
- Multi-lingual posters: www.bestalliance.org/best-resources.html