Travel Sector Companies Under Pressure to Address Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a problem that is often hidden from sight, especially in the United States. The statistics on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation are unsettling. Nearly 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. The U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report estimated that 2,000,000 children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade. ECPAT International, an international non-governmental organization, estimates that between 100,000 – 300,000 children are potentially subject to commercial sexual exploitation in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Justice has identified human trafficking as the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Correspondingly, the level of advocacy seeking to address this problem has increased significantly in recent years, with a specific focus on engaging the private sector in efforts to combat the efforts of traffickers. Companies, especially in the travel industry, are facing increased pressure from stakeholders to play a role in addressing the problem. Companies have been subject to shareholder resolutions, online petitions, and legislative pressure asking companies to implement policies and procedures intended to promote the identification and reporting of trafficking activity.

For example, in June 2011, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility issued a statement asking 90 companies, including four companies in the travel industry, to take a leadership role in abolishing human trafficking and slavery. At the time of the statement, a representative of Boston Common Asset Management observed, “[i]t is no longer acceptable for companies to avoid this issue: each must do its part to eradicate the threat of human trafficking and slavery within its spheres of influence.”

Congress has also taken an interest in the travel industry’s actions to combat human trafficking. At a hearing in June 2011, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) observed, “No country and few industries are untouched by [human trafficking]. Traffickers use airlines to move their victims, [and] hotels to exploit sex trafficking victims.” His remarks focused on the potential for public-private partnerships. The U.S. Department of State, through the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, has been involved in a number of these partnerships, working with companies in the travel sector on programs to protect and assist victims of trafficking.

As part of this advocacy and engagement, many companies have been asked to sign The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (“The Code”). The Code, originally developed over ten years ago by ECPAT International, is not technically a code of conduct, but rather a set of business principles that can be adopted and implemented by companies in a manner appropriate to their business models. Consistent with The Code’s principles, advocates have urged companies to: adopt corporate policies against sexual exploitation; train staff to be observant to potential victims; provide staff with information on how to report suspicious activity; build alliances with police, anti-trafficking organizations, and child welfare agencies; and provide information to guests regarding national laws, hotline numbers to report potential incidents, and the penalties imposed for trafficking and the sexual abuse of children.

In 2004, Carlson became the first American company to sign on. In a recent statement, Beathe-Jeanette Lunde, Executive Vice President for People Development, Responsible Business, Safety and Security at Carlson, stated that affiliation with The Code represents “an opportunity to be open and proactive” about the crime of child exploitation and child trafficking “so all our stakeholders, be it employees, guests or suppliers, can feel safe while working or doing business with us.” More recently, in 2011, Delta Air Lines and Hilton Worldwide have also signed on to The Code.

That said, few American travel industry companies have signed The Code since its initiation over ten years ago. Some companies have policies against signing external codes of conduct, but the reluctance to adopt these business principles has also reflected industry concern regarding the legal and reputational risks of being associated with human trafficking. In recent remarks before a Congressional committee, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Director of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, noted that many companies have stated that they “would love to do something” but find the notion of having their brands in any way associated with trafficking activity to be too “nerve-wracking.”

As companies worry about creating associations between their brands and human trafficking, the reality is that external stakeholders are already making this association. Companies increasingly risk being perceived as failing to address this criminal activity and its associated human rights concerns. Ultimately, companies are in the position of needing to define the narrative, rather than letting external advocates define it for them. As more and more companies are growing comfortable with taking proactive steps, those who have not yet addressed the issue will likely face increased scrutiny.

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