How labor trafficking affects hotels and why you might be liable

Exploitation through labor trafficking is not rare or isolated, and it comes with serious criminal liability concerns. Photo credit: Getty Images/AndreyPopov

Human slavery is still present in today’s developed world, and it’s possible a victim of the trade could even be working in your hotel, against his or her will, without your knowledge.

Labor trafficking is defined by the National Human Trafficking Hotline as a “form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion.” Labor trafficking most commonly occurs in domestic work and agriculture, but its presence can be felt in a variety of industries. Traffickers often saddle their victims with usurious debts and demand remittance despite paying beneath the minimum wage, leaving victims feeling stranded with no options for escape.

Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement at ECPAT-USA, an organization founded to raise awareness about human trafficking, said the decentralized nature of the hotel industry may be great for business, but it is also a great hiding place for labor traffickers. Because a hotel has an owner, a developer, a manager and a brand, and in many cases these are separate entities, it can sometimes be hard for labor-trafficking victims to understand who is in charge of what as they suffer through option paralysis.

Virtual Event

Hotel Optimization Part 3 | January 27, 2021

With 2020 behind us and widespread vaccine distribution on the horizon, the second half of the new year is looking up, but for Q1 (and most likely well into Q2) we’re very much still in the thick of what has undeniably been the lowest point of the pandemic. What can you be doing now to power through and set yourself up for a prosperous 2021 and beyond? Join us at Part 3 of Hotel Optimization – A Virtual Event on January 27 from 10am – 1:05pm ET for expert panels focused on getting you back to profitability.

“For both sex and labor trafficking, every organization out there has a policy against them. But they don’t always see them being implemented on the front line,” Guelbart said. “Also, people on property might not believe that it’s happening. Third parties have the ability and willingness to falsify documents, so it might take an extra bit of due diligence.”

Blind Eye

Failing to take labor trafficking seriously can come with some severe penalties for hoteliers. If a hotel was charged and found guilty of labor trafficking, its operators could face penalties under federal antitrafficking laws, which include a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. This has never happened due to the opaque nature of the crime, Guelbart said, but hotels that fail to take action against labor traffickers could find themselves open to criminal liability.

Case in point, a survivor could sue a negligent hotel for damages, which is exactly what happened in February of this year. As reported by Lexicology, a teenage girl in Texas—“Jane Doe"—is currently seeking $1 million in damages from several multinational hotel chains, alleging she was abducted and forced to rent out hotel rooms at numerous properties without providing identification to hotel management.

In her complaint, she states that she was sexually abused in each of these instances by a number of individuals, none of which were hotel guests, and in the course of this ordeal hotel management and staff failed to take steps to alert authorities. It could be possible for a victim of labor trafficking to make similar allegations.

Jane Doe argues that each hotel she purchased a room at benefited from her abuse. This is in violation of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 98.002, which creates liability for individuals or entities that intentionally or knowingly benefit from human trafficking. Because there were no inquiries made on behalf of Jane Doe during her captivity, these hotels could be found liable.

Secret Pain

Once a hotel operator is ready to face the issue of labor trafficking, it may encounter difficulties even identifying victims, just as the Texas hotels that missed Jane Doe. Madeline Lohman, senior researcher for humanitarian organization Advocates for Human Rights, said labor-trafficking victims are a diverse group of workers, but a profile of them does exist. Common victims include foreign nationals, undocumented immigrants and workers in the U.S. using work visas, though other profiles also exist.

“Many employees who are here working on visas sponsored by their employers will have that fact used to compel them to work against their will,” Lohman said. “Labor traffickers often act as subcontractors to larger businesses. In some cases, hotels hire those subcontractors thinking they will follow all labor laws, but there are circumstances in which they could be a labor trafficker.”

A hotel's employees and management team are in the best position to spot instances of labor trafficking, but training is necessary to do so. Photo credit: Getty Images/LightFieldStudios

Spotting victims of labor trafficking is challenging, but finding the traffickers is even more difficult. There is no way to concretely track labor-trafficking statistics, and no single profile of traffickers exists, but Lohman said there are some telltale signs hotel operators can look for. Individuals who are overseeing the personal identification for one or more people, or who frequently cut someone off when speaking may be a potential labor trafficker. Other signs come from employees who are unable to remember where they are, or employees renting rooms in the hotel for extended periods of time.

“Directly hiring your workers is the best way to be in the clear, but that isn’t always feasible,” Lohman said. “Just acknowledging the humanity of your workers is effective for rooting out abuse. Treat them like people, listen to their complaints and follow through with solutions so they know their words mean something.” 

Lights On

Guelbart said hotel managers are in the best position to counter labor trafficking, which is why industry organizations such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association have taken steps to educate the industry on the issue. In 2013, the AH&LA funded and developed an online training program specifically geared toward hotel employees alongside Guelbart’s ECPAT-USA, and information on the subject can be found on the organization’s website. Similarly, AAHOA recently worked with the Polaris Project, an organization working to prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking, to provide training to its owners.

Hitesh Patel, chairman of AAHOA, said the organization’s entire board of directors completed training on how to detect and counter human and labor trafficking earlier this year. Now, similar programs are being rolled out to the rest of the organization’s owners and beyond.

“Before, we were just promoting this within our membership, but now when I meet with brands we make it a priority to get hotel operators trained,” Patel said. “Our owners don’t want to lose a property over this, but it goes beyond that. There are 20 million people affected by this. It’s time to wake up as an industry, and it’s morally imperative that we stop this.”