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Hotels Are Key In The Fight To End Human Trafficking

Lawsuits are on the rise, but there’s little proof staff training can solve the problem.

Hotels Are Key In The Fight To End Human Trafficking
[Photo: Flickr user mark sebastian]

As the ski season ramps up in Beaver Creek, Colorado, about 120 seasonal employees at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch gathered inside a series of upscale meeting rooms for onboarding training. The agenda covered hotel rules and expectations, tours of the building, and good customer service.

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Oh—and how to spot a slave, too.

“If a guest pays in cash or requests a room with access to an exit, that’s a red flag,” said Ritz-Carlton team trainer Wendy Hunter, pacing in front of a small group of employees. Behind her stood a large screen showing an image of a young girl and a list of signs of human trafficking that she ticked off. Does a guest speak for another person in their party? Or seems too protective of them? Maybe he lingers outside their room for long periods of time? That’s the time to speak up, Hunter said.

The Ritz-Carlton hotel, located in the posh area of Beaver Creek where room rates hit $480 to $700 per night, is not necessarily the first place you’d think human traffickers would hang out. But hotels and motels are prime locations for people to be trafficked, and the Ritz-Carlton isn’t immune.

“It’s not just low-end hotels—this problem is endemic,” says Philadelphia attorney Charles Spitz, who follows the issue as the leader of the hospitality practice at Post & Schell PC.

Modern-day slavery is far more pervasive than you’d think. Some estimates project that 24.9 million people worldwide are victims of labor and sex trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization. Hunter told the story of a family who rented a condo, and the resort’s staff discovered that they had enslaved a foreign couple to do their cleaning and other chores. “They wore the same clothes day in and out and looked malnourished.”

Hotels like Marriott International, which owns the Ritz-Carlton brand, have good reason to address the problem. Human trafficking is a hot-button issue that can cost money and destroy corporate reputations.

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[Photo: Jason Wong/Unsplash]
“In this climate of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, it’s on the minds of everyone I talk to in the hospitality industry,” says Spitz, “because nobody wants to be known as the hotel where trafficking occurs.”

A 14-year-old victim of trafficking filed a suit earlier this year against the Roosevelt Inn in Philadelphia for allegedly turning a blind eye while she was sex trafficked. That set off a chain of other suits: In Houston this spring, a mother sued the Plainfield Inn, alleging the motel knew her 21-year-old daughter had been trafficked there for two years before showing up dead in a ditch less than 10 miles away. And there are four more lawsuits by victims who are accusing America’s Best Value Inn in Salisbury, Maryland, of knowing that they had been held there against their will and were forced to perform sex acts with men—reviewers on travel websites even complained of the prostitution there.

Airlines are also on the lookout: Delta Airlines posted a story in its in-flight magazine, touting its own training of 54,000 employees and encouraging frequent fliers to donate miles to victims who need to fly home or get to legal proceedings. Anti-trafficking billboards are popping up in airports and truck stops, the FBI is receiving training on interview techniques for trafficking cases, and lawmakers are taking notice.

A Pennsylvania statute now carves out civil liability to hotels, and dozens of states have already passed laws to fight human trafficking. The state of Connecticut passed a law requiring hotels and motels to train employees to identify potential trafficking situations.

Training programs could also protect a hotel if they are sued, says Spitz, because they can go to a jury claiming they had a plan and took steps to prevent trafficking.

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Last year, Marriott hired its first human rights director, Tu Rinsche, who created mandatory human-trafficking awareness training for all 678,000 people who wear the Marriott badge, to include the Moxy, Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, and Courtyard. In the first six months, the company trained more than 100,000 people.

Marriott International wouldn’t say how much it is spending on this effort, but they did offer an undisclosed grant to ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit that seeks to end sexual exploitation of children, which embedded people inside Marriott International’s offices to collaborate on the training program. Marriott has since provided its training for free to the state of Connecticut and to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

The Washington-based nonprofit Polaris Project, which operates a hotline for suspected cases of trafficking, documented 1,434 cases inside hotels and motels between 2007 and 2015 and identified 1,867 victims. Only 22% of the calls of cases in hotels and motels were made by victims.

“We need to look behind the trespassing, loitering, and domestic abuse calls to see people hiding in plain sight, and business has a significant role to play,” says John Richmond, founding director of The Human Trafficking Institute, which is combatting modern-day slavery and trains FBI agents on interview questions for such cases.

So does training bellhops, front desk people, and housekeepers actually help? In general, yes, says Brad Myles, president of the Polaris Project. Hotels stake a lot of faith on their employees to run questionable activity up the food chain.

“It’s part of the process of getting the hotel to be eyes open about what can happen, but it’s not a slam dunk,” he says. The more legitimate businesses, such as banks, hotels—even Airbnb hosts—can block traffickers from surfing on their assets, the more at risk traffickers will become, says Myles. Airbnb has partnered with Polaris to educate its hosts about trafficking as well.

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[Photo: Flickr user Zolidelphia]
Most efforts under way, however, may still not be enough to stamp out the problem, warns Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an anti-trafficking expert and author of the book, Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium. Very few of the perpetrators are prosecuted. Even worse, the victims are criminalized for such charges as prostitution. Even if a person is rescued, there aren’t enough services to address their need for trauma counseling, housing, or employment.

While employee training is a good thing, Mehlman-Orozco says, empirical research must be done to analyze outcomes and the contents of the training programs. Right now, there’s no evidence to know which trainings, if any, result in a significant increase in identifying human trafficking incidents. “Much less, we don’t know the outcomes of suspected cases,” she says.

Rische at Marriott International says that in the first three months of rolling out training, two reported cases of human trafficking were brought to hotel management’s attention and led directly to the rescuing of victims. “It’s been very impactful,” she says.

The topic engrossed new employees at the Ritz-Carlton during the recent onboarding session. They quizzed Hunter on a range of topics. What if a manager isn’t available? Do we interview them if we’re suspicious? Should we snap pictures if we’re suspicious?

“Absolutely not,” Hunter said in response to photos. She emphasized safety for guests and employees until the police can investigate. Her advice was basic: Trust your gut, tell a manager, don’t alert suspicion or try to handle a situation on your own. “It’s up to you to say something to a manager—even if you don’t know for sure.”

Many of those Ritz-Carlton employees will go through a second, more in-depth training session depending on their department during their first month on the job. Specific training for housekeepers, for instance, would include such warning signs as a guest asking them to change the sheets multiple times in a day, and if there are several condoms in the trash. The balance for hotel companies like Marriott International is respecting guest privacy and staying diligent. “If they’ve been in for three days, we have to check on them,” Hunter told new employees.

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Rinsche, who worked directly with former slaves in the Peace Corps in Mauritania about 15 years ago, said that kind of awareness is critical to fighting trafficking. “Our businesses are being exploited,” she says, “and there is a positive role we can play on an ugly issue.”


Jennifer Alsever is a freelance journalist with 20 years of experience. Her work has appeared in other publications, including Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, CNNMoney.com, the New York Times, Wired and Inc. Prior to becoming a freelancer in 2004, she worked as technology business reporter for the Denver Post and Crain’s Cleveland Business where she won several state and regional journalism awards. A graduate of the University of Colorado in Boulder, she now lives with her husband and two boys near Vail, Colorado.

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