(NewsNation) — The bulk of the human trafficking trade runs through hotels and the hospitality industry, and empowering workers to identify warning signs and speak up is a critical element to stopping this underground business.
Workers are much more likely to interact with victims in their jobs, and, if they know what to look for, they “begin to connect the dots,” said Tomas Lares, founder of United Abolitionists, Inc.
“Somebody turns the light switch on whenever there’s good training,” he said.
Yet an industry survey showed 28% of respondents didn’t realize human trafficking was an issue. That may be because spotting it can be difficult if all a person knows is based on stereotypes.
There’s been a rise in online sexual exploitation during the pandemic, which can lead to in-person victimization of all kinds.
“It’s men, women, adults, minors, foreign-born, domestic, sex trafficking, labor trafficking,” Lares said. “A lot of people were not aware that, of all those different faces, we call them human trafficking.”
Yvonne Chen has worked for more than a decade with survivors of human trafficking, who have often told her they interacted with hospitality workers who didn’t recognize their situation.
“They were mistreated, oftentimes in public, too,” she said. “When that happened, they had wished that someone had noticed or at least known what to do.”
Chen is the director of private sector engagement for anti-trafficking nonprofit ECPAT-USA, which offers free online training with more than 1 million downloads. They tell workers don’t try to talk to the suspected perpetrator or victim. Instead, report suspicions to managers, who are more likely to recognize patterns reported by multiple people.
ECPAT-USA trains workers to report things such as guests who request a room near a back exit, are with partners of a noticeable age difference, or are carrying unusual electronics like multiple cellphones and credit card readers.
For example, one study followed a county services department in Houston. Prior to training, there had only been one report of trafficking in the previous year. That jumped to 12 reports in the following seven months.
And experts say the increased awareness is making a difference. There have been reports of housekeepers reporting an overheard, disturbing conversation, and an Uber driver recognizing that a young girl was dressed inappropriately for the weather.
There have also been increased hotline calls from both workers and victims needing help after training takes place, Lares said.
“One student was almost even recruited into a porn trafficking site, and she stopped because of our training,” he said.
And ultimately stopping trafficking is a group effort, requiring coordination between businesses, police forces and advocacy organizations.
“We’ve got to take this on like our lives depend on it and like our kids’ lives depend on it,” said Jan Edwards, a trafficking expert who trains kids and parents through the Paving the Way Foundation. “Because if we keep not talking about this, if we keep putting the shame and the guilt and the embarrassment around this … we’re going to see lives lost that don’t need to be lost.”