Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON
Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll are nothing new for the hospitality industry, but British hoteliers say loud music, used condoms and alcohol could hint at something darker: modern-day slavery.
Add last-minute bookings, paying in cash or landing without luggage — all are warning signs that human traffickers could be using the cover of hotel life to hold, abuse and sell victims.
Yet for hotel bosses, this is just the tip of the iceberg, for modern slavery poses a triple threat to the hospitality industry, from people being sexually exploited in hotel rooms to goods made via global supply chains that are tainted by forced labor and sub-contracted workers at risk of coercion and abuse.
Many hotels in Britain are teaching staff to spot the signs and are scrutinizing suppliers of goods from shampoo to sheets.
However, exploitation of their employees is the insidious threat.
Countless hotels are in the dark about the backgrounds of their workforce and might be inadvertently hiring slaves, experts say.
“Outsourced staff are a key risk in supply chains in the hospitality industry when it comes to modern slavery,” said Dominic Fitzgerald, development director at Shiva Hotels group.
“Unfortunately, responding to modern slavery is not something that is driven hard enough within the industry — there is no legal requirement,” Fitzgerald told reporters in a plush bar at a Hilton hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport.
Many major hotels in Britain hand control of their workforce to recruitment agencies — leaving mainly low-skilled and migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage, poor pay and long hours, and working under duress to fill the pockets of their traffickers.
The hospitality sector employs at least 3.2 million people in a country estimated by rights group Walk Free Foundation to be home to 136,000 slaves — with the crime growing and evolving.
However, many industry firms focus on the source of their goods rather than their staff, being either unaware of the risk of abuse or unwilling to pay more to address the threat, said Andrew Crane, an academic at the University of Bath and a labor issues expert.
“To prevent the misery of modern slavery from blighting our workforces ... companies need to be able to trace the origin of their employees in the same way as most can for their products,” Crane said.
Hospitality is one of Britain’s top employers and fastest-growing sectors, worth ￡130 billion (US$172 billion) and set to create 500,000-plus new jobs by 2021, trade experts say.
Traffickers are already deeply embedded and an estimated 93,000 people are sexually exploited in hotels across Europe each year, according to a study funded by the EU.
A gang member who trafficked 19 Asian women to Britain and sold them to be sex workers in hotels in a dozen cities last year was jailed for four years in a case police and prosecutors said exploited the hospitality sector in an “organized operation.”
However, several big players have joined forces to fight back.
The Stop Slavery Hotel Industry Network was founded in 2016 by the Shiva Foundation — an anti-trafficking group funded by Shiva Hotels — to boost ethical recruitment and root out abuse, promote responsible supply chains and tackle sex trafficking.
Thousands of hotel staff in Britain — from cooks to cleaners — are being trained to identify possible trafficking signals, such as excess alcohol in a room or a child staying over.
Yet too few hotels — big or small — are doing enough to ensure their own workers are safe from exploitation, said Martin Birch, head of WGC, an outsourced cleaning services provider.
“Modern slavery has become a hot topic, but hotels need to go a lot further,” said Birch, who employs about 5,000 staff.
His workers are sometimes nervous on first joining, having suffered abuse from former bosses, seen their pay withheld or deducted, and faced threats of eviction from staff quarters.
So WGC pairs new hires with older staff for reassurance, offers a helpline for staff to report complaints and once even saved a worker from the clutches of traffickers, Birch said.
With many firms paying lip service to the threat even with Anti-Slavery Day on Thursday, Birch urged concrete action.
Modern slavery “is not another health and safety type of heading. It needs to be eradicated ... not just spoken about,” he said.
Insiders say some hotels are knowingly passing the buck.
“Hotels must stop hiding behind contracts — they should have direct contact with all workers rather than absolving themselves of responsibility,” said Peter McAllister, chief executive officer of the Ethical Trading Initiative.
“It is primarily a question of political will and money, and legal liability in some cases,” McAllister said.
A review into the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act — which requires firms with a turnover of at least ￡36 million to report on their anti-slavery efforts — could see the law strengthened and force companies to do more, he said.
Hotel bosses said sustainability had been the sector’s watchword in recent years — from sourcing organic produce to encouraging guests to reuse towels to help the environment — and that slavery now deserved similar scrutiny and robust action.
“It used to be the case that hotel chefs could tell you the name of the cow behind the piece of beef on your plate, but not the names of the housekeeping team,” Fitzgerald said. “Yet that is changing.”
The industry is also mulling how Brexit — Britain’s planned departure from the EU next year — and the rise of short-term home rental companies like AirBnB might affect worker rights and abuses, as well as sex trafficking in hospitality, he said.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.
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