Preventing human trafficking in hotels

With 10.5% of calls reporting sexual exploitation made to the US National Human Trafficking Hotline involving hotels, the industry has a huge role to play in bringing an end to modern slavery and human trafficking. Luke Christou reports. 

The 19th century abolition acts may have freed millions, but they didn’t bring about a total end to slavery. Anti-Slavery International estimates that 40.3 million people continue to live as slaves around the world today, including ten million children and 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation.

Yet, a study published by human rights organisation Walk Free in 2019 painted a bleak picture of the hospitality industry’s response. Based on a survey of 71 major hospitality companies, 75% had failed to disclose any information about slavery in their supply chains.

“It’s disappointing to see that so few hotels are looking into modern slavery in their supply chains,” Fran Hughes, a manager at Shiva Foundation, a movement started by hotel group Shiva Hotels founder Rishi Sachdev to end human trafficking and slavery. “This does not capture all hotels by any means, as the industry is comprised of a lot of small and medium sized businesses, but let’s face it; there are big names in that report who are not reporting at all. This is just not acceptable.”

Efforts to end human trafficking in the hotel industry

Shiva Foundation is doing its part to educate and encourage hotels to do theirs. Its Stop Slavery Blueprint is designed for internal use by hotels and stakeholders to detect and prevent human trafficking in the industry. The blueprint provides best practices and procedures for hotels to follow, as well as a checklist of suggested actions for hoteliers to take to address the risk of modern slavery within its business.

“The blueprint helps as it is a one-stop-shop where a hotelier can access all of the resources they need to address modern slavery in their business and supply chain,” Hughes explains. “Want to see a sample training presentation? It has one. Need to see what a supplier policy, incident reporting template, or management process looks like? It’s all there to guide and support hotels through the process, from making a public commitment, right through to measurement and reporting.

“I think it has really helped to close the gaps and make it easy for people to put their hands on the right resources.”

Despite the Walk Free study’s disappointing findings, there have been plenty of suggestions that the hospitality industry is intensifying its efforts.

"The blueprint is a one stop shop where a hotelier can access all of the resources they need to address modern slavery."

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) recently introduced new programs, tools and resources designed to train its employees to spot signs of human trafficking. These resources have been rolled out to more than 2,300 IHG hotels across the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. The company expects that all hotels in these regions to have completed the training by March 2020.

This followed Radisson Hotel Group’s announcement that it had partnered with sexual exploitation awareness organisation ECPAT-USA. The group will follow ECPAT’s Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, a set of business principles aimed at preventing commercial sexual exploitation of children. Hoteliers such as Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide also adhere to the ECPAT Code of Conduct.

As part of its commitment, Raddison has also rolled out a  new employee training program which, among other topics, will cover human trafficking.

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Educating employees to spot signs of exploitation

Many of the efforts being made focus on educating staff to spot signs of human trafficking. Shiva Foundation’s indicator list provides an abundance of signs that could suggest that human trafficking is taking place. These indicators range from refusal to show identification to ordering food from children’s menus at unusual times.

However, hotel employees shouldn’t just be looking for signs of human trafficking and modern slavery among guests. While sexual exploitation is talked about most, the hospitality industry also presents opportunities for labour exploitation, given its high number of low-skilled jobs and reliance on migrant workers. 

"It’s important that all staff know the risks in their functional area."

“Many hoteliers equate human trafficking with sexual exploitation, but that’s only one of the risks,” Hughes explains. “Labour exploitation is a particular risk, notably as the employment structure often includes labour providers for casual or outsourced workers.”

Signs that employees might be being exploited include signs of abuse, such as malnourishment or exhaustion, or a lack of socialisation with co-workers. Likewise, hotels should also look out for multiple employees listing the same address, phone number, and bank account details on application forms and contracts.

“It’s important that all staff know the risks in their functional area, but even more important that they know what to do if they spot things and are supported to report any concerns,” Hughes says.

Could technology aid hotels in eradicating human trafficking?

Criminals typically thrive on anonymity, and the hotel industry often provides these criminals with the space to conduct criminal activities behind closed doors. Many times bookings can be made anonymously and no identity checks are carried out.

Mobile key provider OpenKey believes its technology can help to remove this anonymity, and in turn reduce criminal operations taking place in hotel rooms around the globe.

Using its technology, hoteliers can issue digital keys to a guest’s smartphone through their unique mobile phone number. Guests then use these digital keys, rather than a physical key, to gain entry to their room through the hotel’s smartphone application. Each and every time a room is accessed, this is captured and reported back to the front desk. As a result, hotels have more insight into who is staying at their premises, as well as the ability to spot any unusual activity.

"Hoteliers can keep human trafficking out of their properties."

“As the largest independent mobile key provider in the world, OpenKey helps combat human trafficking in hotels by eliminating the element of anonymity that human traffickers depend on,” Brian Shedd, vice-president of sales and marketing for OpenKey, explains. “Typical ‘burner’ phones that are used to maintain anonymity do not have the capability to work for mobile keyless entry.”

Kidd admits that technology alone can’t eradicate human trafficking in the hospitality industry. However, coupled with the education programmes and practices being developed by organisations like Shiva Foundation, or the American Hotel & Lodging Association in the US, “hoteliers can keep human trafficking out of their properties”.

Several big-name hotel brands are already beginning to integrate mobile key technology into their branded apps and rewards platforms. The tech firm counts groups like World Hotels, Braemar Hotels & Resorts, Destination Hotels, Coast Hotels and more among its partners.

No excuses for hoteliers

While there is definitely progress being made, Hughes feels that “as a sector we [the hotel industry] are still very wide of the mark”, with many assuming that human trafficking isn’t a problem in their hotels.

Changing this mindset is key to eradicating the problem in the industry.

“Whatever standard of service they are, they are not immune,” Hughes says. “There are risks in every class and location of hotel (we heard recently about a case of labour exploitation in Shetland) and they need to take action.

“Once you have that mindset at the top of the business, you can start to take steps to address the risk. We have a very close relationship with Shiva Hotels and we see how much can be achieved when a company ‘gets it’.”