The Hospitality Industry – an unconscious enabler of modern slavery?

Modern slavery in the context of International Relations

Recognition, protection, advocacy, and insurance of human rights remain an active concern in the field of International Relations. The configuration of the world itself makes it clear that we would always face human rights abuse, negligence, or violation.

If we were to see countries as gardens and their human inhabitants as plants, we could certainly agree on the fact that location is one of the first factors that influence how the plants will grow. Each location comes with its specific set of characteristics: climate, land type, etc. that obviously influence how the plants develop. Plants will then be very different in looks and behaviors as they must adapt to different conditions. Now, these plants are a bit clever as they can control or influence as well these conditions, so they somehow built their own systems that could facilitate their growth, systems varying greatly in leadership and management.

Thus, there are gardens in which the system is designed in such a way that is important for all plants to have access to the same resources and facilities that we can simply call “basic rights” and gardens in which some plants have more access to sun and water than the others. Gardens are also able to interact with each other, and in spite of how diverse their nature is, their leaders agreed that all plants should evolve in a healthy manner having granted these basic rights in order for the whole community of gardens to thrive.

However, given how difficult it is to align all these different working mechanisms, the discrepancy between plants that enjoy their rights and plants that do so less is clearly visible and the endeavour of minimising it continues to be a substantial one.

Stepping outside this metaphor and returning to the human dimension, modern slavery is currently a massive, yet conveniently hidden crime against human rights happening globally. Human trafficking, forced labour, as well as child labour are few of the processes of this atrocity.

In 2015, the United Nations Organisation adopted the agenda of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the scope of achieving fair, inclusive and sustainable development by 2030. SDG 8.7 urges all governments to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour”.

Global Slavery Index started by the Walk Free Foundation proves that there is still scarce progress in this regard. An approximated number of 40.3 million men, women and children were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016, with 24.9 million people subjects to forced labour and 15.4 of forced marriage. Most vulnerable appear to be women and girls accounting for no less than 71%.

Being the result of complex and obscure criminal networks, it is indeed a challenge to completely exterminate it and there are industries that consciously or unconsciously facilitate this modern slavery proliferation.

The ugly side of the hospitality industry

Contemporary, extremely devastating and a grave way of violating human rights, the issue of human trafficking makes the hospitality industry join this evil game unwillingly.

This industry represents a very popular choice for human traffickers as they choose hotels in order to exploit the vulnerable victim within its rooms. In fact, 10.5% of the total sexual exploitation in 2016 involved the hotel industry, making it just less popular than the arranged brothels.

Why is the hotel industry vulnerable to human traffickers?

There have been numerous reports on this topic blaming the human traffickers’ affinity for the hotel industry on the fact that the macro-environment acts as a facilitator for this crime. Additionally, based on the available reports, it looks like the meso-level characteristics which are connected to the elasticity of the demand and labor intensity are also relevant to the vulnerability of this sector. Although the micro-environment seems to be the most important of all of them, there is little research on this topic.

The macro-environment – facilitators

As mentioned above, likewise any other industry, the hospitality field is strongly influenced by the events that are occurring around the world be it economic, socio-cultural, legal, or political.

EU refugee crisis

When talking about a clear example of such a factor, the refugee crisis in Europe cannot be neglected. For the human traffickers, the thousands of war refugees pose a real source for the sex trade, agricultural, and cleaning services. In terms of numbers, The International Organization for Migration states that more than 71% of the people coming from North Africa have experienced exploitation and most of them adopt the status of ‘slave’ even before reaching Europe.

Missing children

Child trafficking is growing as well since, in 2015, 5000 children were missing in Italy, 1000 were disappeared in Sweden and, in total, 10000 refugee children could not be found. Additionally, other 900 children from foster houses have been ‘off-the-radar’ in UK in the past 5 years. It is believed that a considerable number out of these children have been forced into begging or sex trade.

India child labor

In terms of the labor work, poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment are other big influences over the tourism and hospitality field. When referring to India for example,  the numbers are unofficially believed to reach 100 million children engaged in the tourism industry. The reason for such a devastating aspect is that the children are being seen as a valuable resource who can work without complaining about a low wage.

The meso-level factors

In terms of the specific characteristics of the hotel industry, there are several ones that increase its vulnerability to human traffickers.

Can geographic positioning be a facilitator?

The answer is clearly positive. A hotel that is isolated will be more attractive for the human traffickers in order to commit their illegalities. The size of the hotels is also relevant as the smaller ones are more vulnerable since they do not have proper management or lack of interest from the staff. On the other hand, Airbnb’s or rental apartment represents a very promising sector as well for this crime due to its little to zero guest-employee contact.

It is a labor-intensive field

The staff planning of a hotel requires tough decisions since this industry encounters seasonality. That being said, the planning needs to chase the demand and it varies in terms of seasons, days or event time of the day. Due to its high operational cost and low margin of profit, it can be difficult to maintain a specific schedule, and this is what makes it vulnerable to human trafficking. Hoteliers might be tempted to accept labor victims (especially with regards to the food and linen services) with the view of cutting down on costs.

Micro-level factors

The hotel industry is struggling with making a difference between discreetness and hospitality since the employees do not always have access to what is happening behind the door, inside the room. This factor mainly targets prostitution which is not tolerated within these establishments. The reason for this is that the hotels are trying as much as they can to protect their guests since there have been numerous cases of cold check-out where the guest is being found dead.

However, some hotels have even provided their guests with in-house escorts with the aim of having some sort of control over the situation. Although it does not sound very ethical, can this procedure act as a combatant to human trafficking?

How to spot the signs of human trafficking in a hotel?

The first time I had ever heard about human trafficking was about two years ago. The truth is that this topic is often not in the spotlight, while it is horrible, and sometimes it is actually happening right in front of our eyes. We just have to use our eyes properly to know how to detect it, because there are signs and thus, it is possible to help the ones who are trapped in this dreadful situation.

I still remember the presentation I received as a first-year hospitality student during practice at NHL Stenden which was much enlightening.  The main points that I have researched, and I would like to highlight are the following:

  • A person avoids eye contact, seems to be nervous, shows signs of abuse, has poor hygiene, is dressed inappropriately, has no personal belongings
  • A person does not speak the language, has no identification or money, accompanied by an older, usually male individual
  • The reserved room is paid for with cash
  • Individuals using not the main entrance, but the less visible side doors
  • Information about the vehicle is not available, the car often parked further or not in the parking lot of the hotel
  • The suspected room has the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door all the time and cleaning services are refused
  • More rooms are reserved by the same individual
  • Visible signs of drug use, alcohol use, a large amount of cash can be found
  • Multiple individuals who are not checked in in the hotel are entering the room, even late in the evening
  • A disturbing smell is coming from the room
  • A person is waiting at the bar and then picked up by an older individual


Although these signs cannot mean for sure that there is human trafficking happening, it is smart for the employees to contact their manager who can decide what are the necessary steps to take.

How can you prevent human trafficking as a hospitality professional?

First of all, having an understanding of human trafficking and recognizing the signs is essential in order to prevent this modern-day slavery. Here are some other tips on what you can do as a hotel manager to prevent human trafficking:

  • Providing training to your employees so they are also prepared and able to identify the hints
  • Being able to answer a report that suggests that human trafficking is taking place in your hotel
  • Create a detailed plan which includes the steps and what has to be done in the case of spotting someone in the action
  • Building connections with companies that provide help to the victims of this crime

It is very important that no employees should take any action against the suspects or confront anyone because that can lead to serious consequences.

Setting an example

Fortunately, more and more hotels are conscious of human trafficking and provide training to their workers. Hyatt Hotels has already set a great example that other hotels should also consider following. They published their own code of business conduct and ethics titled “Doing What’s Right” in which the company shows its commitment to take care of their employees, guests – and all their stakeholders.

In this booklet, Hyatt focuses on how to practice mutual respect at work. They expect to create an environment with equal treatment, respectful behaviour, excluding insults, verbal abuse, harassing or unwelcome physical contact.


”Caring means speaking up if someone is being disrespectful. Speak to the person themselves, if you’re comfortable doing so, or talk to your manager or supervisor.” – Hyatt Hotels


Furthermore, Hyatt also aims to embrace diversity, inclusion and the total support and protection of human rights. In their Human Rights Statement, they refer to their most important policies and practices. They also begin with that was already mentioned in the section above, the crucial starting point to fight against human trafficking is to provide training and highlight the possible signs of this crime. From 2014 on, Hyatt took some precautionary steps towards a safer environment by detecting and shutting off the access to specific webpages recognized for trafficking in the United States.


“Human trafficking is a crime that can intersect with the hotel industry. To help stop it, Hyatt takes aggressive measures to help identify and attempt to prevent trafficking activity.” -Hyatt Hotels


Looking at this excellent initiative, Hyatt could be a role model amongst hotels and hopefully, as it is recognized, more and more companies are going to follow and make their own code of business conduct and ethics. Together we can make a difference.

Eyes closed or eyes opened?

Obvious or less obvious, modern slavery definitely has its tentacles deeply spread in the hospitality sector from a variety of conveniences. Whether some hotels deliberately allow it or not remains a particular investigation, but here comes the ultimate question. Are human trafficking and other related practices hard-to-detect-and-punish crimes because they are so tactfully operated as to not be spotted or is it most of the time simply a choice of the witnesses to cover their eyes?

If we were to look at the industry level, as we saw from the example of Hyatt, combating the issue revolves majorly around the ethical structure of the company. The hospitality players that want to make a difference have taken a strong stand towards Corporate Social Responsibility and have formulated clear policies in this sense. Educating and training of the personnel on this matter have become priorities for many hotel businesses that have taken seriously their role to maintain sustainable development of their surrounding community. On the other hand, there are also organisations that prefer to adopt an ignorant position and deal with such problems only if they portray an unimaginable threat to their reputation.

But what about guests? What role do they play, or can they play? Seeing how present this crime is and the unbelievable number of victims it makes should trigger the urge to take action in any human. Before being ‘guests’, we are all humans and we should not remain silent or careless where a fellow human has his/her rights unlawfully taken from him/her.

Therefore, whenever we happen to witness an act that might lead us to think of modern slavery we should act, even as guests. Most of the time, we don’t. Either it’s the fear that we might suspect something that is not even true and we would alarm people pointlessly, either the fact that we’re only on a short business trip and we won’t hear about that hotel again or simply we don’t want to ruin our peaceful holiday by being the advocates of righteousness.

But think again. Are all these valid reasons to refuse to give help to a person that might really need it? Even if it would prove to be a fake alarm, wouldn’t it be smarter to check? It costs us nothing but maybe a few seconds of our time to show that we care, seconds that might save someone’s life.

So, let’s open our eyes together! Let’s show them that we can see the ‘unseen’!




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