The impact of corporate liability on human trafficking within the hospitality sector (food/beverage, accommodations, and travel/tourism) is having a startling impact that is transforming hotel corporate culture and value systems to fight human trafficking not only from the reception desk to the penthouse; but further into victim recovery.

Imagine the discomfort of a hotel employee when they think that they see something that isn’t right happening at check-in, in the restaurant, bar or hotel rooms. Hospitality training has embedded the notion that hotel staff should not confront hotel guests. So what happens when employees are faced with either losing their jobs or turning a blind eye? How can hotels make money in an already challenging economy for profit margins if customers feel like they are under surveillance? Will the threat of corporate liability for human trafficking kill the hotel business?

Americans have a bad rap for being a “sue society” and a “compensation culture.” Consider the infamous litigation suit in 1992 when an elderly American woman sued McDonald’s because of severe burns suffered when she spilled a cup of hot coffee in her lap while in her car. She won her court case and McDonald’s was ordered to pay $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. At the time, it was considered a frivolous case… but over time this case motivated the fast food industry to recognize and capitalize on the growing coffee to-go culture and invest in both safety regulations and coffee holder innovations; and later to invest even further in sustainable environment goals for paper and plastic disposal. As an insight from hindsight, I have to ask…Could corporate liability ignite positive and sustainable change against human trafficking in the hospitality sector?

First let’s consider the growing legal evidence that trafficked victims are suing corporations in the hospitality sector. Earlier this year, Pillsbury Law wrote an alertRecent U.S. lawsuit against corporations, including major hotel chains, shines the spotlight on the need for anti-human trafficking compliance. This Texas lawsuit filed in early 2018 is the first of its kind because it is based on Chapter 98 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which establishes that a company can be held civilly liable for human trafficking if it benefits from it intentionally or knowingly. The suit accuses several multinational hotel chains, as well as truck stop operators and a website known to advertise commercial sex of illegal exploitation of a minor and seeks over $1 million in damages.

In March 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation filed a story about the first case heard under a 2014 law in the state of Pennsylvania that allows victims to sue those who profit indirectly from their trafficking. The case involves a teenage girl who claims that from the age of 14, she was forced to have sex with men for two years. She is suing a roadside motel and accusing management of turning a blind eye while she was sex trafficked.

On a more somber note, a 25-year-old woman who was a victim of sex trafficking was killed in a hotel in Oregon. The murderer was a man who noticed the woman on an Internet site called Backpage.com, which is notorious for its use by sex traffickers to advertise their victims. The perpetrator was convicted of manslaughter in June 2017 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The victim’s estate has filed a $3.6 million lawsuit against the hotel. The complaint asserts the hotel failed to properly train staff or implement preventative measures. The suit alleges the hotel missed several known clues that sex trafficking was occurring. These include: cash was used to pay for the room; the victim and pimp carried no luggage; and they provided personal information that conflicted with data the hotel had on file for the person whose hotel benefits program number the pimp had stolen and was using. The prosecution attorney stated, “Sex trafficking is an epidemic largely because of companies who turn a blind eye to it for the sake of profit.” (Cengage)

Of course, not all companies turn a blind eye. Many corpoarations are fighting human trafficking by educating their employees on trafficking indicators and reporting procedures. The training film Please Disturb shows how an international hotel chain is opening their eyes and preventing sex trafficking on their properties.

Anti-trafficking awareness training is a huge corporate investment; but all trafficking profits, law suits and prevention models aside, we cannot lose sight of the victims who deserve to be compensated for mental and physical abuse from which many will never fully recover. Can we see the same sustainable impact over time taking root in the hotel industry that evolved from the corporate liability lawsuit against McDonald’s in 1992 that and harvested the portable coffee cup evolution?

Perhaps we can. Sleep Tight (Internationelle) provides insight that new hotel operating models go further than detecting and reporting trafficking signals. Wyndham Hotel Group has partnered with Polaris for a program in hotel placement support for victims through Points for Polaris, along with training and education for all levels of their staff. Hilton was the first hotel chain to join the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights in 2016, as well being the founding member of the UK Stop Slavery Hotel Industry Network. Hyatt has mandatory anti-trafficking programs for all hotels and since 2013, has provided survivors of human trafficking with hospitality skills training through the Youth Career Initiative (YCI). In Vietnam, Park Hyatt Saigon and Hyatt Regency Danang work with STREETS International, a non-profit organization, to support an 18-month residential program in culinary and hospitality training. If corporate liability holds the whip of change, I say let’s get cracking!