A call to action for hotel operators to adopt human trafficking compliance and training.
In the case of Benson v. Portland, Oregon Hilton Doubletree, the family of a sex trafficking victim who was murdered by a customer sued the hotel in which the act occurred. In their $3.6 million lawsuit filed last year, the plaintiffs claimed the hotel should have recognized the signs of sex trafficking and assisted the deceased woman.
Several similar civil cases have been brought against other hotels. This includes a lawsuit filed by a teenaged victim, who claimed she was forced into human trafficking and sexually exploited at various major-brand hotels in Texas, and sought $1 million in damages and attorneys’ fees.
Even though the recent claim is based on a federal law that was established more than 15 years ago, this is a growing area of liability for operators. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 was enacted to comprehensively combat human trafficking in the United States by strengthening criminal laws against the traffickers while providing conditional protection and benefits to the victims. It was amended in 2003 to include a private right of action. Moreover, there are state laws that mirror the amended TVPA.
The moral repugnancy of these practices should be clear. Trafficking is modern-day slavery, and not only involves sexual exploitation, but forced labor. As you might imagine, there are a number of bad actors involved in these crimes, including the individuals who solicit the victims, who are often disenfranchised and economically or emotionally vulnerable. There are also the individuals and businesses that sexually abuse the victims or benefit from their cheap labor.
How might the hospitality industry find itself in the crosshairs of a human trafficking lawsuit, even unwittingly? For one, consider the current labor shortage. Owners and managers who do not properly vet employment agents could employ trafficked persons who are essentially working as slaves. In terms of sex trafficking, hotels and motels offer readily available privacy with relatively easy public access.
Under the TVPA, a victim may bring an action against “whoever knowingly benefits ... from participation in a venture that person knew or should have known has engaged in” trafficking. In addition to the trafficking civil claim, many other U.S. laws may provide civil remedies to trafficked persons. In terms of recovering civil judgments, hotel and motel operators are prime defendants, even as unwitting players in human trafficking. Unlike the shadowy bad actors that solicit and abuse these victims, lodging operations are easily identified. They have assets and insurance.
The law understands that imposing civil liability on corporations encourages their vigilance against human trafficking. This has not been lost on the well-regarded Southern Poverty Law Center, which provides a comprehensive online guide to attorneys on “Civil Litigation on Behalf of Victims of Human Trafficking.”
Industry risk management and insurance experts identify employee training as the best deterrent of human trafficking activities at properties. Training of front-line staff is particularly critical. As you might expect, housekeepers, front-desk staff and room service attendants are often in the best position to identify and report suspected human trafficking to management. They are the eyes and ears of any property.
Moreover, companies are encouraged to perform an internal review of existing policies and procedures to identify areas that may be subject to exploitation by traffickers and assess their prospective suppliers’ and contractors’ labor practices. Marriott International is reported to have adopted these policies and practices. Given that any operator is potentially vulnerable to its property being involved in human trafficking, it behooves all operators to follow suit.
In its “Hospitality Toolkit,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides these “Signs of Human Trafficking”: • Individuals show signs of fear, anxiety, tension, submission and/or nervousness.
- Individuals show signs of physical abuse, restraint and/or confinement.
- Individuals exhibit evidence of verbal threats, emotional abuse and/or being treated in a demeaning way.
- Individuals show signs of malnourishment, poor hygiene, fatigue, sleep deprivation, untreated illness, injuries and/or unusual behavior.
- Individuals lack freedom of movement or are constantly monitored.
- Individuals avoid eye contact and interaction with others.
- Individuals have no control over or possession of money or identification.
- Individuals dress inappropriately for their age or have lower-quality clothing compared with others in their party.
- Individuals have few or no personal items, such as no luggage or other bags.
- Individuals appear to be with a significantly older “boyfriend” or in the company of older males.
- A group of girls appears to be traveling with an older female or male.
- A group of males or females have identical tattoos in similar locations, which may indicate “branding” by a trafficker.
The specifics of an effective human trafficking deterrence, identification and reporting compliance and training program is certainly beyond the scope of this article, which is primarily a call to action. Fortunately, there are resources from which to draw, including the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
Barry Shuster is assistant professor of the Legal Environment of Business and Hospitality Law & Ethics at North Carolina Central University School of Business. He is an AHLEI Certified Hospitality Educator and is admitted to practice before all North Carolina state and U.S. District Courts.
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