How the Meetings Industry Is Confronting Human Trafficking

Forced labor and sexual exploitation is a global problem — and now airlines, hospitality companies and meeting planners are taking serious steps to combat it.


The statistics are stark: Depending on which agency you consult, anywhere from 30 million to 40 million people in the world today are estimated to be victims of human trafficking - defined as the illegal transportation of individuals for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation - and one quarter of those are children. As many as 100,000 minors are trafficked in the United States alone every year, some as young as 12, according to Brooklyn, N.Y.-based ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking), a nonprofit founded in 1991.

Trafficking experts point to the Internet and the increased popularity of social media sites such as Facebook, which perpetrators use to lure and groom vulnerable targets - most of them female - with promises of modeling jobs, gifts and even simple friendship. Meanwhile, the hospitality industry has become an unwitting platform for such crimes, thanks to the anonymity that hotels, motels and home-sharing sites afford their guests.

As ECPAT and other entities make strides in raising awareness about this global crisis, major hotel chains have begun to acknowledge their role and take responsibility for finding solutions. At the same time, meetings industry organizations are aligning with the cause, pledging to be a part of the solution.

Hiding in Plain Sight

January has officially been named National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This year, Marriott International marked the occasion by hosting a panel discussion at its Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel in Manhattan.

The hospitality giant was justifiably proud of its educational efforts on the problem: More than 500,000 hotel workers worldwide have completed mandatory human-trafficking awareness training since the program was begun in 2017, which has led to several victims being identified and rescued. But it was Shandra Woworuntu, a trafficking survivor and panelist, who had the audience completely riveted. A native of Indonesia, she was just shy of her 25th birthday in 2001 when she answered an ad in a local newspaper that promised a well-paying, six-month hotel job in Chicago. It was anything but.

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