Europe's hotels rife with human trafficking

Human trafficking is widespread in Europe’s hotels. That's according to a two-year project co-funded by the Prevention of and Fight against Crime of the European Commission.

The findings came despite extensive anti-trafficking initiatives by global operators and prescribed concrete actions for identifying and preventing the crime across its spectrum.

The COMBAT study found that—of more than 1.1 million victims of human trafficking across Europe annually—over 93,000 sex slaves and 4,500 labor slaves were exploited in hotels and 12,500 labor slaves in restaurants.

The research was undertaken by a consortium of researchers from Oxford Brookes University, the University of West London, the Lapland University of Applied Sciences, Finland and the Ratiu Foundation for Democracy, Romania.

Data were collected from a wide range of industry stakeholders in Europe including corporate level hotel executives, senior hotel managers, security and legal experts and NGO stakeholders.

Work Still to be Done

“Our research has identified a range of cases of human trafficking from incidents of domestic servitude within five-star hotels, to forced criminality, forced labor within hotels and their supply chains, and forced prostitution of adults as well as minors. Levels of complicity were varied,” said Dr. Maureen Brookes, a Reader in Marketing and a Teaching Fellow within the Oxford School of Hospitality Management at Oxford Brookes University

She added: “Many global operators have signed up to anti-trafficking charters and there is evidence of excellent work being undertaken in the fight against trafficking by key players such as Carlson Rezidor, IHG, Hilton and Accor.  

“In addition, smaller firms, such as Shiva Hotels, are working proactively to share best practice in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery in the hotel and hospitality sector. Likewise, organizations, such as the International Tourism Partnership, are also driving best practice across a broader range of industry sectors.

“Despite these commendable efforts, there are two clear reasons why human trafficking is still occurring. The first is that most current initiatives focus on creating awareness of trafficking, and in particular, child sexual exploitation.

“As our research reveals, child sexual exploitation is only one type of human trafficking that is occurring. Hotels are also vulnerable to labour trafficking and even becoming victims of incidents of trafficking for forced criminality purposes.  

“In addition, the research reveals that even when training has been provided to create awareness, this is often not followed through with advice or action plans on how to respond to suspected incidents.   

“According to principal Investigator, Professor Alex Paraskevas from the University of West London, there is still a need for hospitality and indeed tourism businesses to ‘instrumentalize their commitment’, and this is what the COMBAT tool kit is doing—for the hotel sector, at least.”

The research identified 28 different vulnerabilities, ranging from strategic issues, such as portfolios comprising large franchised estates, outsourcing back of house functions and the use of shadow labor in house and in their supply chains, including construction. Other vulnerabilities related to the use of technology and operational practices. Brookes said: “So while there has been a good deal of attention on child sexual exploitation and what is happening front of house, there are key vulnerabilities in the back of the house that still need to be addressed.”

Hotel Guidance

To help hotels, the study has developed a model of the trafficked victims’ journey through a hotel, both front and back of the house. This model identifies critical control points where potential signals of trafficking might be observed and offers advice on potential barriers that can be erected.

This model is part of a Combat Human Trafficking tool kit with resources to be used at operational, managerial and corporate level, with appropriate guidance at each level for specific actions that can be taken to address this criminal activity and help provide support for victims. 

The tool kits also include a range of training material including case studies written from the victim’s perspective, power point presentations, 10-minute trainer cards, aide memoires, posters for awareness and a train- the- trainer manual.  The toolkit is designed so that it can be adapted to suit the needs of any size or style of hotel.
Brookes said: “We hope that these tool kits will be used by hoteliers, whether small independent operators or large corporate chains, particularly as it is free.  Apart from the moral and ethical arguments for combating human trafficking there are also legislative, reputational, strategic, operational and financial risks for hotels involved, knowingly or unknowingly, in incidents of human trafficking.”

As Brookes noted, the operators have made efforts to address the issue.

Kate Gibson, VP of corporate responsibility, InterContinental Hotels Group, said: “IHG has been working with the University of West London over the past five years, and has provided input into the formation of COMBAT. This completion of this project is another valuable step in working towards raising further awareness of this topic. In addition to being part of this group, which has created a comprehensive toolkit for hotels to help combat trafficking, we are a signatory to the UN Global Compact, aligning our operations and strategies with the 10 universal principles that include commitments to human rights and labor standards.

“We are also part of the Business in the Community and Business for Social Responsibility cross industry working groups on human rights as well as the International Tourism Partnership's Human Trafficking Working Group. We continue to work with our internal procurement team to further embed our human rights approach into our contracts.”

On the EU’s anti-trafficking day, UK ALDE member Catherine Bearder, said: “Five years ago the EU made huge strides when the anti-trafficking directive was brought into force but we are still not joined-up enough in our approach as data shows the number of trafficked individuals continues to rise.”

The MEP said the refugee crisis had made the issue of trafficking even more pertinent: “We must be doing all we can right across Europe to protect the many, many thousands of unaccompanied vulnerable minors who are particularly exposed to traffickers and go missing all too easily.”

As the hotel sector continues to boom around Europe, so too does its responsibilities.

Katherine Doggrell is an editor at UK-based news analysis service Hotel Analyst.