This Major Hotel Chain Is Ready to Take on Human Trafficking – But Will It Do More Harm Than Good?

In 2001, Shandra Woworuntu arrived in the U.S., hoping to start a new career in the hotel industry and support her family back home in Indonesia. But Woworuntu was duped by a lie, she tells BBC. Forced into sexual slavery, she became a victim of human trafficking. And it took months before she was able to escape. Woworuntu is one of millions.

More than 40 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization. This number, which largely includes women and children, equals more than the entire population of California. From covert operations to actions carried out in plain sight, trafficking can happen anywhere. And as expected, hotels are often the backdrop to these crimes. In fact, according to 2016 statistics published by the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, 10.5 percent of sexual exploitation cases reported involved hotels, including both luxury and budget properties. But now, the hospitality industry is stepping up to help victims.

Marriott Answers the Call to Stop Human Trafficking

In 2017, Marriott, whose portfolio includes The Ritz-Carlton, W Hotels, and Westin Hotels & Resorts, announced its mandatory human trafficking awareness program for every employee across all of its properties. The company collaborated with EPCAT-USA (Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking) and Polaris, two non-profits that specialize in combating human trafficking, to create the training materials. Since its launch, 500,000 of the company’s employees have been trained to spot and report signs for sex trafficking at their hotels. 

Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline the U.S., documented 1,434 cases inside hotels and motels between 2007 and 2015 and identified 1,867 victims, Fast Company reports

Already offered in 17 languages, the training occurs in person or online, and teaches employees to be the eyes and ears of a property. The tips may differ, depending on the employee’s role, but general indicators include: excessive towel and linen requests, large payments in cash, and insistence on not using housekeeping. Victims vary when it comes to age and gender, may arrive with little to no luggage, and might not be able to speak for themselves. Employees are told not to confront the suspect or victim, but rather to call law enforcement.

“Hotel workers wouldn’t necessarily see a human trafficker visibly restraining a victim; they would typically see a scenario that is much more nuanced and harder to detect if you don’t know what you to look for,” Dr. David Rodriguez, chief global human resources officer of Marriott International, said in a statement. “That’s why helping hotel workers identify the signs of sexual exploitation and forced labor is so important.”

A Wrinkle in the Plan

Given that hotel housekeepers enter rooms several times a day and bartenders overhear conversations, this initiative appears to be an obvious and noble thing to do. However, many claim it does more harm than help.

A viral tweet pointed out the discriminatory undercurrents of the policy, saying that it creates an unsafe environment for single women staying at hotels. “So apparently the Marriott Hotel chains are directly working with the feds and keeping [an] eye on any women who are traveling alone,” Veronica Santos tweeted. “Some are also not allowing some women to drink at the bar alone. All to stop ‘sex trafficking.’” 

Oyster spoke to 38-year-old Vanessa Chiasson, a loyal Marriott patron, about her thoughts on the new policy. “As someone who enjoys solo travel and works as a travel writer, there’s a lot about my travel and hotel habits which might be considered atypical,” she says. “I travel with comparatively little luggage, but plenty of peculiar tech gear. I often request extra items for my hotel room, which doubles as an office, yoga center, kitchen, and laundry zone for me. However, I rarely allow the staff into my room and often decline housekeeping services owning to my need to both spread out and reorganize my kit and also preserve my privacy while fighting jet lag. There are even times when I check in for less than a day — sometimes as little as six hours. Back-to-back overnight flights make me eager for a few hours of quiet rest and hot showers. Occasionally, I’ve designated the hotel lobby bar as an ideal spot to meet with clients and colleagues. It always felt like a safe and convenient choice, but I now worry that it looks peculiar or worrisome to staff on the lookout for women whose patterns aren’t meeting their interpretation of social norms.”

While certain aspects of the training are undoubtedly useful, the concern stems from the fact that these tips are subjective — and that hotels might be shutting out single female customers for fear that they are potential sex workers. “The thought that women will be more scrutinized in one way or another under this new training is very disconcerting,” says Chiasson. “There is no emphasis on identifying potential perpetrators, who are predominantly male, only a focus on the potential victims, who are female. As such, all female travelers are subject to scrutiny and that makes me very uncomfortable.” It’s also worth noting that plenty of sex workers choose this work, and this type of initiative can hinder that freedom. “How are people going to be able to differentiate between a sex trafficked victim and a woman traveling alone or eating dinner alone?” Santos told Paper Magazine.

What the Experts Say

According to Shreyas ‘JR’ Patel, president and COO of Helix Hospitality, a Chicago-based hotel group with properties around the U.S., Marriott’s program is the first legitimate push and a very important step. “We are dealing with a lot of gray — you are giving associates the ability to make a judgement call,” he told Oyster. “But this is mostly about raising awareness to those in the hospitality and service industries.”

So, could this turn loyal Marriott customers away from the brand? “I always considered the Marriott hotel to be a business-friendly brand, but I hadn’t examined it further to determine if it’s business-woman friendly,” says Chiasson. “This has motivated me to dig deeper into the policies and practices of the hotels I stay with to further evaluate their positioning. The notion that I don’t fit into their neat boxes of female travel behavior is enough for me to re-evaluate my loyalty.”  

However, although Marriott’s approach certainly has flaws, it seems to be yielding some positive results, anecdotally speaking. According to Tu Rinsche, the director of social impact for Marriott International, two hotel employees reported possible instances of trafficking, that were eventually confirmed, reports Teen Vogue.

“I understand that this is a double-edged sword — training people to be hyper-aware or point out situations that potentially may not be cause for concern,” says Patel. “The training is about guidelines, how to pick up warning signs versus rules that have to be followed. At the end of the day, we have to trust in the ability of the associates to make a judgement call. They’re calling this an ‘underground economy’ — we can’t stand by and do nothing if we say our priority is our guests and their safety.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an anti-trafficking expert and author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” has some concerns around the efficacy of Marriott’s training protocol. “I do not believe their identification intervention has been adequately tested for sensitivity and specificity,” she told Oyster. “As such, I fear there may be a high rate of false positive and false negatives. These protocols should be tested and evaluated by trained academics — not just non-profits — prior to implementation.”

Given the dearth of empirical data on the prevalence of trafficking, it is difficult to reliably test the success of these interventions. Instead, Mehlman-Orozco suggests using proxies. Mehlman-Orozco tells us that several hundred commercial sex consumers have implicated Marriott hotels — as well as other properties — as places for illicit exchanges on websites, like USASexGuide.info and InternationalSexGuide.info. “Post-intervention, it would be interesting to assess whether the number of commercial sex consumers mentioning Marriott hotels decreases. Some of these exchanges involve consenting sex workers as opposed to victims of sex trafficking, so it’s a limited proxy,” she says. 

As for why it took so long for hotels to roll out an initiative like this one, Mehlman-Orozco believes that businesses, like hotels, are fearful of the growing number of third-party liability cases involving sex trafficking on their premises. A 14-year-old victim of trafficking filed a lawsuit against the Roosevelt Inn in Philadelphia for allegedly ignoring that she was sex trafficked, Fast Company reports. Still, Mehlman-Orozco says, “I do not believe Marriott and most other hotels facilitate this crime, much less knowingly. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, many hotels did facilitate, some even directly advertising commercial sex services on matchbooks and other promotional materials. Sex trafficking is a clandestine crime that is difficult to identify, and as such, I do not feel it is appropriate to blame the hotels for unknowingly encountering these offenses. Marriott is doing the best they can with the information they have at their disposal.”

A Compromise for the Greater Good

Hotels aren’t the only ones within the travel space taking action. Airlines, Airbnb, and tour operators are among the companies that are implementing anti-trafficking awareness programs. Delta Airlines, for example, advertised its own training of over 50,000 employees, and encouraged frequent fliers to donate miles to victims who need to fly home or get legal proceedings, Fast Company reports. Meanwhile, ITMI (International Tour Management Institute) offers both classroom and online trafficking awareness training. Each ITMI class receives interactive classroom training during a 15-day hands-on tour director training course. The online training is a supplement to the classroom training. Even the Department of Homeland Security offers training for truck drivers, first responders, and more.

That’s to say nothing of the other hotel companies that are also fighting against human trafficking. Carlson Companies, owner of Radisson Hotels and other major chains, was the first U.S. travel and hospitality company to sign the EPCAT code, which requires organizations to fight the exploitation of children by committing to train employees to recognize signs. “It really comes back to what kind of world do we want to live in,” Joan Keddell, president of ITMI, told Oyster. “The tourism industry is poised to play a vital role in shining more light into the darker sides of humanity.”

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