The Perfect Storm for Hotel Owners

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Protect yourself and help put an end to human trafficking

by MAR BRETTMANN, PHD

A nation-wide shift in law enforcement priorities is uncovering a dark world of human trafficking and exposing hotel owners to new risks. Criminal investigations and civil lawsuits are increasingly directed at the exploiters and properties profiting from trafficking. These changes are building momentum toward a perfect storm for hotel owners. Many hotel owners—from independent properties to luxury brands—have already found themselves hit with expensive lawsuits and unexpected property seizures.

Shift in Criminal Investigations

Following the passage of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have been changing their perspectives on prostitution and on labor trafficking victims. Traditionally, to curb the crime of prostitution, officers arrested and jailed the prostituted person—including children. As new laws developed to protect children and adults in coercive forms of prostitution, law enforcement is increasingly treating prostituted people as crime victims, not perpetrators. Criminal investigations are re-focusing on the traffickers, sex buyers, and the businesses that profit from exploitation. For example, in Oceanside, Calif., the manager of a hotel was charged with a felony for allegedly allowing gang members to rent rooms for prostitution. And in Tukwila, Wash., three hotel properties were seized by police and two of the hotel owners were arrested for drug and prostitution activity.

Employees who are subjected to force, fraud, or coercion – labor trafficking victims – are also finding new advocates within the criminal justice system. Survivors can now apply for a special visa and ask that their trafficker/employer be prosecuted. Staffing contractor, Giant Labor Solutions, and 12 of its owners and associates were indicted on human trafficking charges in 2009. Employees who were brought from overseas with promises of work were coerced to work in a variety of businesses, including a prominent hotel in Kansas City. The workers also brought a civil suit against the hotel, which favored the hotel.

Increase in Civil Suits

Adding to the criminal risks, new laws are making it easier for victims of sex and labor trafficking to bring civil suits against hotel managers, owners, and their brands. Plaintiffs’ attorneys who feel outraged by the sexual exploitation of children and by forced labor are actively seeking pro-bono cases to support victims. The Southern Poverty Law Center has even published a manual to help attorneys filing civil lawsuits involving human trafficking.

One high-profile lawsuit against a Philadelphia owner claims that a young girl was 14 when she was forced to perform commercial sex acts with men over a two-year period at a hotel. The suit claims that the hotel received financial gain by providing rooms to the girl’s traffickers and alleges that the proprietors knew about the illegal conduct through the following indicators: the young girl was dressed in sexually explicit clothing, she exhibited “fear and anxiety,” she was “visibly treated in an aggressive manner,” men were standing in the hallways waiting before entering the room, and the room “contained used condoms and condom wrappers.” The attorney who is representing the victim, Tom Kline, was a leading attorney on the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case and has litigated numerous cases resulting in multi-million dollar verdicts.

Local governments are also filing civil lawsuits. In August, a prominent hotel brand agreed to pay $250 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the city of Los Angeles. The suit alleged the chain’s management allowed one of its locations to be used by human traffickers. The city also sued the managers of the motel and the management company.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against a hotel in Oklahoma City in July 2017 on behalf of several foreign workers. It alleged that the workers were paid less than minimum wage and coerced to continue working through threats and intimidation by the hotel owners.

The Remedy: Employee Training

“When protecting yourself from human trafficking cases,” says Sandip Soli, external counsel for the Washington Hospitality Association, “the legal requirement is often knowledge: what a reasonable person should know based on the circumstances. To protect themselves, owners are smart to learn everything they can and provide information to their staff.”

Owners who train their staff are demonstrating due diligence that may ultimately protect them from financial and reputational harm. In a case involving a Maryland hotel, the lawsuit alleges that the front desk clerk knew that a young girl was engaged in commercial sex. With a little training, this lawsuit may have been prevented.

The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) is working hard to make sure its members are aware of the unique risks this crime poses for hospitality businesses. For the last several years, leaders of the Northwest Chapter of AAHOA have donated part of the proceeds from their annual golf tournament to Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) to create online human trafficking prevention training modules for hoteliers and utilize other means to raise awareness. The video-based training empowers hotel staff to identify and prevent human trafficking on their properties. In as little as 30 minutes, your staff will learn:

  • What sex trafficking is
  • How sex trafficking operates in hotels
  • Indicators of sex trafficking
  • Recommended actions to take if indicators are present.
  • Owners and Managers may also learn:
  • Steps to proactively prevent illegal activity
  • How to report human trafficking
  • Information on legal protections that exist in individual states.

The courses can be completed in a group setting or integrated into new hire training and are available at training.bestalliance.org. By following AAHOA on social media, owners will also gain new information regarding human trafficking throughout the year.

Photo credit: Sabphoto/Shutterstock.com

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