The Travel Industry Takes On Human Trafficking
Hospitality workers are learning how to spot trafficking incidents.
By TANYA MOHN
Published: November 8, 2012
THE travel industry — long an unwitting participant in human trafficking at hotels and on airplanes, trains and buses — lately has been increasing efforts to combat the problem, working with private advocacy groups and the federal government in long-term, coordinated initiatives that go beyond its normal philanthropic activities.
“People don’t realize how prevalent it is,” Sam Gilliland, chief executive of the travel technology company Sabre Holdings, said of the trafficking problem. “It is not restricted to certain areas in the world. It’s everywhere.”
He called human trafficking a $32 billion-a-year business, but the Polaris Project, an advocacy group, thinks it is higher. The group said that an estimated 21 to 27 million people globally are held as virtual slaves.
At a news conference in September, Mr. Gilliland announced Sabre’s “Passport to Freedom” initiative, which will train its 10,000 employees in 60 countries how to identify and report potential trafficking incidents. Jada Pinkett Smith, an actress and anti-human trafficking activist, was one of the speakers. Sabre, which owns Travelocity, plans to expand its outreach to businesses, travel agents and travelers who use its software and will eventually include informational links in all itineraries to raise awareness of the largely hidden problem.
In October, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation and Amtrak also announced stepped-up efforts against trafficking. Through a partnership, the Department of Transportation is in the process of training more than 55,000 employees and Amtrak plans to train some 20,000 employees to counter the problem.
“Everyone has a role to play in putting a stop to human trafficking,” Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, said in an e-mail, “and at D.O.T., we’re doing our part by making sure that no form of transportation is used to move people against their will. By working with partners in the transportation and travel industry, we can help train even more people to identify the signs, speak up — and possibly save a life.”
Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, likened the initiative to the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign to combat terrorism. “We can’t do it alone,” she said.
The United States travel industry’s commitment to fight trafficking has gathered momentum since 2004, when Ecpat USA, or End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, introduced the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, a voluntary set of guidelines for the travel and tourism industry.
Carlson became the first United States-based global travel and hospitality company to join in 2004, and since then the Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, Delta Air Lines, Accor hotels, Hilton Worldwide, the Real Hospitality Group and Sabre have signed.
Large travel companies have a long tradition of philanthropic involvement, from raising money to cure cancer to flying in food and supplies and providing low- or no-cost flights and hotel rooms for relief workers after disasters like Katrina or the tsunami in Japan. But the scope of this initiative is somewhat unusual, said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company.
“Rarely do you see companies participate in a coordinated effort like this,” he said. “Travel businesses are becoming aware that they can’t be complacent, and their employees want the companies to be on the right side of issues such as this.”
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman of Carlson, said, “The travel and hospitality industry is in a unique position to address this problem.” The company, whose brands include Radisson, Country Inns and Suites and T.G.I. Friday’s, says its more than 80,000 hotel employees in 81 countries receive required training to deter trafficking of children. Front desk employees, for example, are encouraged to look for visual clues like signs of abuse or fear among potential victims; young people made up to look older; and clients who pay with cash, are reluctant to provide identification or have no luggage.
Brenda Schultz, who oversees Carlson’s hotel training program, said “Some girls are tattooed with things like ‘Daddy’s girl.’ ”
Housekeeping staff might be alerted to criminal activity if there are an unusually large number of electronic devices in guest rooms, or many condoms in the wastebasket, she said.
“There is no one way that it happens,” said Sandi D. Mitchell, a Sabre manager who oversees employee training to counter trafficking. “Some are abducted, some are wooed, some believe they are coming to America for a better life,” but then become indentured servants or victims of forced labor. Trafficking victims can be hidden from hotel management through third-party suppliers of janitorial, housekeeping, landscaping or other services.
Petra Hensley, a survivor of trafficking, helped train Sabre employees by pointing out red flags — for example, an older man traveling with a young girl who does not appear to be his daughter and the two carry passports from different countries. “Ask the girl where she is going,” she said. “If she is reluctant to answer, something is not right. It’s about questions. It’s about body language.”
“People on airplanes don’t think of it as a danger zone, but trafficking can occur just about anywhere,” said Ms. Hensley, now 35, who was abducted, raped and sold for sex at the age of 16 in her native Czech Republic; she now does advocacy work through the Sojka Foundation, which she founded.
Nancy Rivard, president of Airline Ambassadors, recounted an incident about a month ago on a major airline. A flight attendant noticed something odd: a young American girl, who said she had never flown before, traveling by herself in first class from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The girl said the seat was a gift from a man she “met” online.
The attendant checked the records, and learned that someone with an unusual e-mail address bought the ticket, but she did not know what to do. A few days later, the attendant contacted Ms. Rivard. Ms. Rivard, also a flight attendant, recounted the attendant saying, “ ‘I can’t sleep at night because I am so worried about the girl.’ She went to the airline for help, but no one knew what to do. Stories like that are not uncommon.”
“Currently, no U.S. airline mentions human trafficking in training, as far as I know,” she said, because airlines do not want to be associated with something that may reflect poorly on their brand.
But Ms. Rivard, whose group provides training to airline personnel on a voluntary basis, said she recently learned that at least three major American airlines plan to begin training next year.
Ms. Rivard contacted Homeland Security and the trafficker and girl were located and she was taken to safety.
“Every day I talk to airline attendants who say, ‘There was a girl on my flight who didn’t look normal,’ “ she said. “It’s growing everywhere.”
Stephen Barth, a lawyer and professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston, said he believed that among the travel industry’s major brands, awareness of the problem had become widespread. “The goal now is to create more awareness among the 50,000 independent hotels scattered all over the U.S. and around the world,” he said.
But challenges remain, particularly among cheaper properties. “Franchisers don’t actually operate the franchised hotels,” which can result in variable compliance, he said. And at some properties, both franchised and independent, security might consist of only one person at the front desk.
Michelle Guelbart, private sector project coordinator for Ecpat USA, said the public should get involved too. Not long ago, she said, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a religious order, contacted a hotel in St. Louis and asked if it had a policy against human trafficking. “The hotel did not,” Ms. Guelbart recalled, “but put one in place.”