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No Vacancy: How the Travel Industry is Turning the Tables on Human Trafficking

A check-in on leading travel brands taking action against human rights abuses by integrating efforts across law enforcement, employee learning engagement and customer awareness.

Human trafficking is a multidimensional human rights violation that appears in many forms, in every corner of the globe. It transcends all races, social classes, demographics, and gender stripping its victims of their fundamental dignity, reducing them to the status of a commodity.

It is a crime borne and driven by demand for cheap goods. Demand for commercialized sex. And this demand is vast. Human trafficking generates illegal profits of approximately US$150.2 billion annually and sadly is the fastest growing international crime.

Few industries are untouched by human trafficking but the travel industry has long been an unwitting participant and enabler of trafficking. Victims are transported and trafficked via air, rail, ship and road, and the sad reality is that because of the anonymity that hotels provide, they are often the venue that traffickers use to disguise their criminal activity. Aside from the moral and legal imperative to tackle human trafficking head-on, for the travel industry, it is also an issue that can erode consumer trust and destroy reputations.

As organizations on the front lines, the travel industry can alone play a critical role in preventing human trafficking, especially in areas where people assume it doesn't exist. Taking a stand isn't enough. Two organizations in particular, Marriott International and Delta Airlines, are leading the industry by taking action against human trafficking, establishing employee training programs and anti-trafficking initiatives on the front line to eradicate one of the most pernicious tragedies in the modern world.

Dismantling the Network of Trafficking

The statistics on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation are staggering. According to the International Labor Organization, there are an estimated 40.3 million victims globally, meaning there are 5.4 victims for every 1,000 people in the world.

To put that into perspective that equates to two-thirds of the population of the UK. Of the total estimated victims, 24.9 million people are trapped in forced labor, 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation, and 16 million people exploited in the private sector such as construction, factory and agricultural work and domestic service.

With numbers of this scale, and faced with increased pressure from stakeholders and customers alike, the programs championed by Marriott and Delta are part of an increasing trend in private entities recognizing the unique role they can play in disrupting the network effect that enables this crime. This past month – National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month established by U.S. President Obama, culminating in the annual celebration of National Freedom Day on February 1 – was a touchpoint for organizations further increasing their efforts by working with private advocacy groups in long-term, coordinated initiatives to dismantle the network of trafficking. 

Putting Purpose into Practice

Purpose-led organizations in the travel industry know that awareness isn't an objective. The number one way to stop trafficking is to learn the warning signs and red flags and for individuals, be that an employee or a customer, and to ask questions when they suspect they have come into contact with a victim of trafficking. As well as introducing proactive measures to raise awareness of the issue with their customers, organizations like Marriott and Delta are taking decisive internal action by implementing anti-trafficking training strategies to help their employees identify the red flags that are the signals of human trafficking.

Since 2017, Marriott International has successfully trained 500,000 of its approximately 750,000 employees to recognize and report sex trafficking. For example, front desk employees are being encouraged to look for visual clues like signs of abuse or fear among potential victims; young people made up to look older; and clients who pay with cash and who are reluctant to provide identification or have no luggage.

Hotel chains aren't the only ones subscribing to the idea that employees can spot trafficking. Many airlines are aiming to prevent the facilitation of human rights abuses, by working with advocacy groups and government departments to create awareness initiatives for employees and customers on how to report signs of potential human trafficking cases.

In the US, more than 70,000 airline staff have been trained to identify traffickers and their victims through the Blue Lightning Initiative, launched in 2013 with the support of airlines such as JetBlue and Delta Air Lines to name but a few.

Delta has long been an active campaigner against human trafficking and recently launched its in-flight video, 25 Million: Help the Unseen, which is focused on how to spot human trafficking. The video is part of the US airline giant's broader anti-trafficking effort, which dates back to 2011. Already, the company has trained 56,000 of its employees on signs to watch for on flights or in airports. As well as rolling out awareness signs in major hubs as part of the campaign.

Proper training can ensure that employees are empowered to take action without fear of retribution; in a way that utilizes internal channels and procedures intended to mitigate the risk of false accusations or well-meaning attempts to intervene, which could potentially put victims at even greater risk.

Meaningful Action, Meaningful Outlook

By taking action against human rights abuses and implementing a multi-level approach that works by integrating efforts across law enforcement, business engagement and customer awareness, the travel industry is taking steps to decrease the ease of traffickers to perpetrate illegal activity, in turn potentially saving lives and providing freedom to the enslaved. 

It may be too early to see a quantitative impact of such programs but there's anecdotal evidence of flight attendants and hotel personnel reporting suspicious activity. By training employees to look for the signals and provide channels for them to report, we have already seen the immediate impact on victims.

According to Marriott, by arming its employees with the tools to help spot trafficking, within the first week of implementing the anti-trafficking training two of its employees reported possible instances of trafficking on its properties, which resulted in victims being rescued and traffickers prosecuted.

Whatever the efforts of a single organization, no firm is big enough to single-handedly choke off human trafficking. Although organizations like Marriott and Delta deserve credit, being good is no reason not to be better. Most efforts underway may still not be enough as the situation remains far from perfect. In particular, survivor support is still not on a full statutory footing, as the victims are criminalized for such charges as prostitution, so more needs to be done to improve survivor care and increase criminal justice effectiveness, as very few perpetrators are prosecuted.

What's also missing is a seamless integration with local law enforcement so victims can be extracted immediately.

One thing is certain though, employing an integrated 360-degree approach, incorporating as many of the stakeholders as possible, meaningful change will come. Therefore, the travel sector, business leaders, legislators, law enforcement, and the public must work together to eradicate this abhorrent abuse and exploitation.

SAI Global is making its short microlearning course, On Supporting Human Rights, available to share with your teams and to empower them to help break each link in the human trafficking chain.


For more information, contact us.