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Reservation for Exploitation: Confronting Human Trafficking in the Hospitality Industry

Lisandra Guerrero | November 30, 2018

A Pennsylvania teenager claims she was held captive and prostituted out of a motel room in Philadelphia for more than 2 years. A Texas mother alleges the same happened to her daughter in a Houston motel room before her body was found in a nearby ditch. A woman claims she was recruited in the Philippines to travel to the United States and work as a housekeeper in a Florida hotel, after which she became more and more indebted to the recruiter for bogus fees and was threatened with deportation if she failed to work and pay.

Cases like these have shed light on the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States, prompting many to look to the hospitality industry to join the fight against it. Human trafficking, often referred to as “modern-day slavery,” is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, generating billions of dollars in illegal profits each year. The International Labour Organization estimates that 24.9 million people worldwide are victims of labor and sex trafficking. While there are no official statistics for the United States, there is evidence that human trafficking is rampant, with its victims totaling in the hundreds of thousands. It is likely occurring in every state, and hotels have often become the scene of the crime.

Florida is no exception. With millions of visitors traveling to Florida each year, the state is widely regarded as one of the nation’s top tourist destinations. Unfortunately, the hospitality industry is an attractive venue for human trafficking. Perpetrators often use lodging establishments to imprison their victims while in transit, or as the location of their victims’ forced services. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), hotels and motels are the single most common venue for reported instances of human trafficking.

The federal government and every state have enacted laws criminalizing human trafficking. Additionally, the federal government and numerous states have passed laws providing civil remedies to victims of human trafficking against the perpetrator and others who knowingly benefitted from the act. Many argue this may include lodging establishments, which profit from the rental of rooms and the provision of other goods and services. Whether Florida will follow suit has been at the forefront of political debate in past years.

This year, bills were introduced in both the Florida House (HB 167) and Senate (SB 1044), providing a civil cause of action to human trafficking victims against their trafficker or any “facilitator.” These bills define a facilitator as any person who “knowingly, or in willful blindness, assists or provides goods or services to a trafficker which assist or enable the trafficker to carry out human trafficking.” According to the bills, willful blindness exists when a person attains knowledge that would “raise suspicions in a reasonable person” and, in lieu of acting on such knowledge, chooses to “remain in ignorance.” These bills, however, also provided an affirmative defense to punitive damages for owners and operators of lodging establishments whose employees are trained to identify and report human trafficking activity pursuant to an established protocol. While neither bill passed this year, they are expected to resurface in the future.

Regardless, lodging establishments should begin taking proactive steps to recognize, prevent, and confront human trafficking by formally adopting and implementing anti-human trafficking policies and procedures. These should include methods for reporting and responding to suspected human trafficking activity, while at the same time meeting the hotel’s privacy obligations. Moreover, hotels should train employees on recognizing the signs of human trafficking from the perspective of their specific position (i.e. front desk, housekeeping, security, valet, or food and beverage). The protocol to be followed and training details should be tailored to the venue’s location, size, and guest/employee demographics, among other considerations. Ultimately, hotels must recognize the need to properly address the issue of human trafficking and, given their unique position, develop an action plan to mitigate the risk this illicit and dangerous activity poses to victims, guests, employees, and the hospitality industry as a whole.

Kubicki Draper’s retail & hospitality team is very familiar with the emerging legislation and is experienced in handling the various legal issues concerning human trafficking in the hospitality industry. The team can provide guidance on developing the appropriate protocols and training necessary to address this important subject matter. For more information on this topic and/or assistance in developing protocols for your organization, contact: Hospitality@kubickidraper.com.

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