When the hotel behemoth Marriott International announced it was doing its part in the fight against sex trafficking by training more than 700,000 employees to spot the signs of potential trafficking in their guests earlier this year, the reaction wasn't what the company expected. Vocal critics lambasted the initiative as misguided, if not outright discriminatory against sex workers — and even single female travelers.
Hotels and motels are often used by traffickers to facilitate forced commercial sex work and other labor — according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 74% of its potential sex trafficking cases between 2012 and 2016 were for hotel and motel-based sex trafficking. Solving the problem has become a topic of discussion in the industry. With hotels currently facing lawsuits from survivors of sex trafficking, companies including Marriott, Hyatt Hotels, Hilton, and Airbnb have publicly vowed to actively address the issue. Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton each initiated mandatory human trafficking awareness training programs — a move that some, including sex work advocates, say impedes hotel guests’ safety and freedom.
To develop its program, Marriott spent nearly a year working with two leading anti-trafficking organizations, ECPAT-USA and Polaris, according to a January news release. “Through Marriott’s training, hotel workers learn to observe and take notes about what they remember and then report their suspicions to a manager, who may then contact law enforcement,” the statement reads.
Some examples of human trafficking indicators included in the training program, provided by a spokesperson for Marriott International, include “guests with minimal luggage and clothing,” “individuals who can’t speak freely or seem disoriented,” “guests who insist on little or no housekeeping,” and “multiple men seen being escorted one at a time to a guest room.”
“One of the things that [Marriott International] recognized is that human trafficking unfortunately negatively impacts the industry, but also our company, so the company identified it as a salient issue for us to address,” Tu Rinsche, Marriott International’s social responsibility director, told Refinery29 in an interview. Rinsche was hired three years ago to focus on human rights issues for the global hotel chain.
“We absolutely believe that it has been instrumental in having associates directly identify vulnerable individuals, including minors who are being human trafficked,” Rinsche said, citing an example where Marriott’s training allegedly led to the arrest of a potential child sex trafficker at one of their London hotels.
For many sex workers and sex work advocates, though, Marriott’s training program doesn’t do enough to make clear distinctions between sex trafficking and consensual adult sex work. "Some [of the signs] listed were not speaking English well, having sex toys, condoms and lube, asking for extra towels and sheets, and not wanting housekeeping in your room," escort Veronica Santos told PAPER. "I realized how dangerous that could be for pretty much any woman, especially [trans women, as well as Black and Brown sex workers traveling] alone and booking a room at any Marriott hotel, because the tips just seemed very subjective." Santos was not alone in pointing out that the program could target consensual sex workers.
Many took to social media to criticize the company’s initiative.
But Marriott and their partners insist that the initiative focuses solely on human trafficking.
“I just wanted to reinforce that we do not target sex workers at all,” Rinsche said. “This is really about identifying vulnerable individuals who are exhibiting these indicators and need help.” Both Rinsche and Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, emphasized that no single indicator — or even multiple indicators — means human trafficking is at play.
“The training is carefully built and repeatedly indicates that no one sign means trafficking, even three signs might not mean trafficking. It’d be an accretion of signs together that might end up resulting in a call to law enforcement, not one of them alone or two of them alone,” Smolenski told Refinery29. “Obviously it’s a nuanced call.”
Often, anti-trafficking advocacy work can conflate sex work with sex trafficking, and some initiatives regard all sex workers as victims. Critics of the hotel’s “see something, say something” anti-trafficking tactic also pointed out that these types of trainings lead to the over-surveillance of women who are traveling solo.
“Telling the public, including hotel employees who don't have expertise in trafficking, that they can help fight trafficking by being aware and reporting anything that seems off is essentially an open invitation for people to give voice to their paranoia and discomfort, and causes them to express racism that they would otherwise keep to themselves,” Alexandra Yelderman, adjunct professor at Notre Dame Law School, told Refinery29 in an interview. Her research has been focused on on human trafficking, black markets, and moral panics.
Yelderman pointed to a number of cases where racial profiling led to false reports of trafficking at airports and on flights after airlines implemented a similar training programs for flight attendants, gate agents, and other personnel to spot potential human trafficking cases. Not only can false accusations ruin a vacation or travel plans, the experience can be embarrassing, emotionally damaging, or traumatic for those falsely accused.
“As a human rights organization, we are careful about the language we use, the development of indicators, and to ensure we are as protective about rights as possible at the same time as carrying out our mission,” ECPAT-USA’s Smolenski said. “All humans have biases. We would hope that companies don’t just use our training for their employees, but all kinds of bias and racism and gender equality trainings as well, we would hope.”
To combat potential biases, Rinsche said Marriott rolled out a new video training series titled “Respect For All” this year. The company’s release states that the videos "provide associates with tools to respectfully and professionally refuse guest behaviors or requests that require doing something illegal or unethical, threaten someone’s safety or dignity, or violate company policy,” but doesn’t explicitly mention racial or gender bias training.
For her part, Smolenski is confident it is unlikely that Marriott employees and managers would weaponize or misuse the training and report guests wildly. “Frankly, [Marriott is] not interested in getting their customers in trouble either,” she said. “They don’t want to be calling the cops about all their customers; that’s not good for business, so they have an interest in making sure [reporting is] careful and well-done."
As important as considering the risks of an intervention like this is, it's probably even more important to ask: Does training employees to identify human trafficking even work? While the company has reportedly been successful in training a majority of its worldwide staff, it has no real way to track how successful the training is in its effort to combat human trafficking in its hotels. Rinsche said it is difficult to quantify the program’s social impact. “There’s no sufficient data that can accurately identify prevalence in any industry,” she said, but tracking the number of employees trained is an easy metric to measure.
“It should raise real questions that this initiative, which must be astronomically expensive, is allegedly pursued with no particular definition of success or failure,” Yelderman said. “The only explanation that I can think of is that there is indeed a metric at play, but that it has nothing to do with victims — rather, the program and others like it are all about virtue signaling and PR.”
Yelderman suggested that the hotel chain could more effectively combat human trafficking by being “vigilant about ensuring that their employees aren't subjected to exploitative labor practices abroad and domestically.”