Human trafficking survivors claim hotel chains are complicit in human trafficking and could intervene, but to date profitability has prevailed. Victims now have the hospitality industry in the crosshairs.
The Scale of Human Exploitation
In 2017, the International Labour Organization estimated that 24.9 million people in the U.S. were victims of forced labor, including:
- 16 million trafficked for forced labor in the private economy.
- 4.8 million trafficked for forced sexual exploitation.
- 4.1 million trafficked in state-imposed forced labor.
- 71% of victims are women and girls.
Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, recognizing human trafficking as a federal crime. Human trafficking occurs when people are held captive for forced labor, including sex work, slavery, and involuntary servitude. It is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises, behind drugs and arms trafficking, and the number of victims continues to rise.
Strategically identifying defendants.
Human trafficking is a crime, and we have traditionally attempted to hold the traffickers criminally liable, and of course we still prosecute them when we find them. In 2008, Congress unveiled a more modern approach with a TVPA amendment authorizing civil claims against businesses that “knowingly benefit from their participation in what they knew or should have known” was a sex trafficking venture.
In April 2020, three human trafficking victims filed lawsuits in federal court against national hotel chains Wyndham, Hilton, and Choice Hotels for human trafficking at their Houston franchises. In each suit, plaintiffs accuse the hotel brands of gross negligence for failing to stop or prevent ongoing sexual abuse after observing “readily apparent signs of human trafficking” on the premises.
Victims are now holding the hospitality industry accountable for crimes perpetrated on their premises.
The lawsuits further allege the hotels’ complicity in the criminal enterprises by receiving financial and other compensation. The plaintiffs in each suit seek compensation for personal injuries and economic damages they sustained as a result of the acts and omissions of the defendant hotels.
While the public has become increasingly alarmed with human trafficking statistics, the underground network of enterprises remains impossible to nail down. In February 2020, despite judicial concern on the issue, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation denied plaintiffs’ request to transfer seven pending actions for consolidated pretrial proceedings in MDL. The court noted the difficulty in granting the Hotel Industry Sex Trafficking Litigation consolidation because, apart from four Georgia actions, each case involves different alleged sex trafficking ventures, hotel brands, owners, employees, geographic locales, witnesses, indicia of sex trafficking, and time periods.
Hotels are Stepping Up.
Driven by the terrible optics and threat of liability, the hospitality industry has introduced sex trafficking awareness programs for staff.
The City of Houston, a trafficking hotspot, is the first major American city to have adopted an anti-trafficking ordinance. The City now requires hotels to annually train all employees on how to recognize the signs of human trafficking as well as how to report concerns. The signs of human trafficking seem obvious once you read them:
- Guests (especially minors) paying for rooms with cash or prepaid card.
- Requesting rooms with access to an exit.
- Guests with minimal luggage.
- People dressed inappropriately for the weather or who seem disoriented.
- Guests who seem to be monitoring or controlling someone, or denying them access to phones.
- A man paying for a room while a woman stays there without him.
- Excessive male foot traffic outside rooms.
- Declining housekeeping for extended periods.
- Excessive adult video rentals or requests for additional linens.
Promoting Social Justice for Survivors.
Human trafficking litigation is riddled with uncertainty. From inaccurate statistics, to the underground nature of the criminal enterprises involved, it’s difficult to get an accurate reading on where these cases will go. We predict they will grow more successful as attorneys become increasingly sophisticated in identifying willfully blind third-party beneficiaries. Never underestimate corporations’ willingness to look exclusively at their bottom lines. Hilton Hotels, for example, advertises as a family destination. It’s looking at its reputation and the cost of doing damage control. Common sense would dictate quick and decisive action on Hilton’s part.
The only thing that’s certain is that plaintiffs’ attorneys will continue fighting for justice, and The Mass Tort Institute will be here to assist them every step of the way.
Join us. Let’s start a conversation.
About the Author
Wendy Porter Lynn’s desire to make the world a better place sent her running years ago from the oil and gas industry into a career in nonprofits. She relishes any chance to help slay a corporate dragon that is harming and exploiting people. Originally from New England, she has studied fine arts and sociology, written poetry, traveled abroad, and consumed way too much coffee. She lives in Houston with her wonderful daughter and a moody cat.
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