A Call to Action: Human Trafficking & the Meetings IndustryJanuary 1, 2016

January 1, 2016

A Call to Action: Human Trafficking & the Meetings Industry


If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. Human trafficking, a $150 billion per year global economy, relies heavily on the travel and hospitality industries of which we’re an integral part. And whether we act as individuals, chapters or entire organizations, act we must.

One of the first things to understand about human trafficking is that it doesn’t just happen “over there.” It’s not a victimless crime, and it occurs in some of the best hotels across the globe, including in the United States. It’s not all about shady, underworld characters.

The men who purchase sex for hire are from every country and every socio-economic background. Soroptimist International, a global volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment, states on its website: “There is no one profile that encapsulates the typical client. Rather, men who purchase trafficked women are both rich and poor, Eastern and Western. Many are married and have children.”

“I want to see in my hotel room, next to the Save Our Planet cards, a similar prompt on trafficking noting what to look for and who to call.”
— Lisa Langford

A New Perspective

Lisa Langford, corporate meeting planner for Finance and Resource Management Consultants, which works with the petroleum industry, attended an industry event in Las Vegas and had the chance to sit with one of the event’s speakers. It gave her a new perspective on how human trafficking works, and how it so easily slips under the radar of most hotel guests and airline passengers.

“I sat with Dr. Katariina Rosenblatt late one night in the lobby of a Vegas hotel,” Langford says. “Katariina, a former trafficked victim and now advocate and speaker, described what she looks for in identifying possibly trafficked girls — the downward focus of the eyes, the mature style of dress on a young girl, the submissive behavior. I had never noticed these signs before and have never people-watched the same since.

“It is difficult to reconcile two realities,” Langford says. “One, that trafficking exists in nearly every U.S. city and in the same hotels we contract for meetings. Two, it’s imperceptible. But it happens. Victims confirm it. And we have a unique voice in our industry to help.”

In 2012, the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) issued a report on the economics of forced labor, estimating that 21 million men, women and children are in forced labor worldwide, 22 percent of them victims of sexual exploitation. Two-thirds of the profits from forced labor were generated by forced sexual exploitation, amounting to $99 billion per year. According to the ILO research, about 55 percent of all victims are women and girls, and in forced sexual exploitation and domestic work an even greater majority are female.

Perhaps most disturbing, annual profits for the criminals who enslave these victims are highest by far in developed countries, including the United States. And while there are no statistics specific to the meetings industry, Julie Johnson, director of industry and media relations for SITE (Society for Incentive Travel Excellence), says it’s well known that child sex trafficking spikes in cities holding large conventions and sporting events, including the Olympics and Super Bowl.

Remaining blind to this global atrocity is no longer an option. As the ILO report put it, “The continued existence of forced labor is bad for business, bad for development and bad for its victims. It is a practice that has no place in modern society and should be eradicated as a matter of priority.”

See Something, Say Something

Raising awareness is the first step to bringing an end to human trafficking. To borrow from Homeland Security and other security organizations, we need to say something if we see something.

But first, we must understand what we see and know what to do if a scene doesn’t look right.

No one is saying that’s easy. Fortunately, there are people and organizations already helping, among them a number of meetings industry organizations including SITE, IMEX, Maritz Travel Company and GBTA (Global Business Travel Association). Most are working in partnership with the U.S. branch of ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of children for sexual purposes), and many have signed ECPAT-USA’s Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct and committed to implementing its guidelines, created to help prevent human trafficking and protect children.

At its 2015 U.S. convention in Orlando, GBTA announced a new partnership with ECPAT. “The GBTA Foundation and ECPAT stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the trafficking and exploitation of children,” said Daphne Bryant, GBTA Foundation executive director, at the convention. “In making this commitment, the GBTA Foundation will work with ECPAT to educate the travel industry about the warning signs of sex tourism and child exploitation. Working together, our industry can make a significant impact in ending child exploitation.”

At the 2015 IMEX America in Las Vegas, several education sessions were devoted to the topic of human trafficking, including a collaborative presentation developed by SITE and ECPAT. Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement for ECPAT-USA, and Rhonda Brewer, immediate past president of SITE and V.P. sales Maritz Travel, sat on the panel.

A Personal Experience

For Brewer, the passion to help eradicate human trafficking is personal. “I worked on a mission trip in Belize a few years ago and got to know some of the women and children,” she says. “One of the girls I got to know was awarded a scholarship for a high school education. She was unable to attend due to her parents selling her to a male outside of Belize. She was 13. That hit me very personally.”

Around that same time, Brewer says, David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Travel, began raising awareness within Maritz, and soon after signed ECPAT-USA’s Code of Conduct. Not long after, SITE signed on as well.

“Human trafficking is a global issue and happens in many of the hotels and airlines that each of us in the industry use every day,” Brewer says. “Raising the awareness and training personnel on the signs of trafficking can help stop trafficking. Maritz and SITE are both global organizations and have signed the code to commit to raising awareness through our employees and members.”

Echoing Langford, Brewer notes that planners have to realize that trafficking happens as much in the United States as it does in foreign countries. “It’s naive to think that it does not happen where we may be traveling,” she says.

And that includes U.S. cities where many conventions and meetings take place. A March 2014 New York Times article highlighting a report commissioned by the Justice Department on the sex-trade economy in U.S. cities found that it’s highly lucrative for those in charge, more so than drugs or guns. Studying Miami, Dallas, Washington DC, Denver, San Diego, Seattle and Atlanta, the report attempted to better understand how the business side of the underground sex trade works, especially in the age of the Internet. Atlanta, a city without the gritty underbelly reputation of New York, DC and Chicago, topped the list, generating $290 million in sex trade vs. $117 million in drugs and $146 million in guns. Denver came in “last” at $40 million in sex trade and $64 million and $47 million in drugs and guns, respectively.

Difficult to Prosecute

Unfortunately, it’s hard to prosecute sex-trafficking cases, and at least until now the emphasis has been on criminalizing the women and girls who are the victims, not the traffickers, because that’s the easiest way to get these cases into court at all.

Honorable Lindsay R. M. Jones, associate director at the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at Emory School of Law in Atlanta, a municipal court judge for the city of Decatur and associate magistrate judge for DeKalb County, has deep interest in these cases, but says current practices related to this problem don’t do much to solve it.

“I issue a handful of warrants for human trafficking cases each year,” he says. “More often than not they involve small rings, one or two young people, male and female, often juveniles, enticed with the promise of modeling, dancing, acting jobs. The problem with prosecuting these types of cases by focusing on criminalizing the women caught up in prostitution is that the women are unlikely to volunteer as a witness against a human trafficking ring.

“Most of the young girls snared in the human trafficking trade fall into one of two categories,” he says. “They have aged out of foster care with no support system and are left to fend for themselves, or they’re victims of sexual abuse or other trauma arising out of environments from which they are running away. Fearing being on the streets alone with no perceived means of supporting themselves, fearing retaliation and fundamentally lacking trust from years of exploitation, they are more often than not reluctant to become witnesses to enable broader prosecutions against human trafficking rings.”

Jones also points out, “While most victims of human trafficking in the sex trade in Georgia are domestic, a growing number are foreign refugees or undocumented immigrants whose cultural marginalization further impacts victim reluctance to become witnesses against human trafficking rings.”

Georgia is not unique in that regard. Sex trafficking in the United States involves U.S. citizens as well as victims who come or are brought across borders, and we can’t depend on the legal system to right this global wrong — at least not by itself.

Making a Difference

It’s a problem that must be attacked on multiple fronts, including action and awareness by travel companies, hotel and airline employees, event attendees and meeting planners who frequently use the same hotels and flights as traffickers and their victims. According to ECPAT, “If you work for a company in the tourism, hospitality, conference/meeting industry or a company that has a large traveling base, then you are in a position to help end the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”

And, says Brewer, individuals absolutely can make a difference. “They need to educate themselves on the signs and know whom to contact if they suspect human trafficking. They need to be cautious to not approach the traffickers but to contact the appropriate authorities for them to apprehend.”

Education — that’s where organizations and industry events can make a huge difference. SITE, GBTA, IMEX and others are providing education seminars and webinars, as well as developing slide presentations on human trafficking for members and attendees. SITE also is developing CSR activities that individual chapters can implement, including filling backpacks with everyday necessities for trafficked victims. Maritz has formed a task force to inform and educate its employees and to speak out on this issue in the travel industry.

ECPAT-USA is heavily involved in education, including training employees of companies that request it, and in establishing best business principles and practices for organizations and corporations. ECPAT’s code supplies clear guidelines, giving organizations a place to start and a partner to work with.

Travel and Meetings Industry Efforts

Delta is one of two airlines in the world to sign ECPAT’s code, and Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Carlson Companies and Wyndham Worldwide are among hoteliers that have signed. Hyatt also recently announced that its hotels will no longer offer pornographic movies in guest rooms, another plan of attack on the sex-trade industry and one Marriott hotels implemented several years ago. Orbitz Worldwide also has signed the ECPAT code, as have the Adventure Travel Trade Association, Association of Corporate Travel Executives and International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, as well as regional chapters of various industry organizations.

ECPAT-USA also is working to change laws that further victimize those abused by traffickers yet allow traffickers themselves to continue to make millions. It has been a part of successful efforts in five states that passed Safe Harbor laws, and has provided guidance, policy recommendations and advocacy support to organizations across the country in an effort to help improve the legal and system response to exploitation.

But more education and advocacy are needed and more voices must be raised. In 2016 and beyond, planners are likely to find more education sessions and CSR programs devoted to the topic of human trafficking at industry events. Before passing them by because they don’t seem relevant, advocates hope attendees will fill these sessions and learn how to help — as individuals and as members of larger organizations.

Session by session, awareness will grow and planners will learn, as Langford did, what to look for in hotel lobbies and on airplanes and how to correctly report a suspicious incident. They also can learn how to address the issue in RFPs and contracts, such as by asking for confirmation from suppliers — and their third-party suppliers — that they have a zero-tolerance policy toward child exploitation and provide education on the subject for their employees.

Every sector of the meetings, travel and hospitality industries can become part of the solution by taking action. As President Obama stated in his address at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, “Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time.”

Doing More

Langford believes that hotel companies and individual properties can go beyond employee education and signing ECPAT’s code, as important as both are, with programs that involve more guests and attendees in the cause.

“I want to see in my hotel room, next to the Save Our Planet cards, a similar prompt on trafficking noting what to look for and who to call,” Langford says. “I want to see properties promoting themselves as ‘trafficking-free.’ I am encouraged by the staff-awareness training that many hoteliers now require, but how powerful to invite guests to join the cause. I know our attendees would respond positively to this initiative.”

Like most things, there’s no single right way to effect change. Rather, there are multiple approaches that when worked together can have a major impact. The meetings industry has long been a proponent of social responsibility. Now is the time for resources to be put toward this cause. I&FMM

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