“Each hotel is different, but fewer people mean there are potentially fewer eyes on what is happening,” said Yvonne Chen, the director of private sector engagement at ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit trying to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation of children. “In light of Covid, we’ve seen vulnerabilities increase for everyone and vulnerabilities are what traffickers target.”
Trying to hold hotels accountable
Federal efforts to shut down trafficking and prosecute offenders have been driven by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000. There have been two important changes to the act in relation to hotels’ responsibility to protect victims. In 2003, victims gained the right to file civil lawsuits against their traffickers in federal court, and, in 2008, the act was expanded to penalize those who knowingly benefit financially from participating in trafficking. That enabled victims to bring a civil suits against third parties, like hotels.
In 2021, 83 new civil suits were filed in federal courts by people who say they were trafficked; hotels were the respondents in 17 of those suits. They follow M.A.’s precedent-setting suit, filed in 2019. M.A. v. Wyndham Hotel & Resorts, which is still in litigation, marked the first time a judge allowed a suit against hotel companies to move forward because the plaintiff “alleged sufficient facts” to show that the staff should have known trafficking was happening, including payments in cash, housekeeping being asked to replace towels on a frequent basis, and signs of sexual activity in the trash such as lubricants and condom wrappers.
“Our lawsuits seek top-down accountability, not just suing the local property owner,” said Kimberly Adams, a lawyer at Levin Papantonio Rafferty, one of the firms representing M.A. “Because the problem of human trafficking in the hotel industry is nationwide, advocates for these most vulnerable people are urging an industrywide effort to address the problem, including by the national brands like Wyndham.”
In an email, a spokeswoman for Wyndham said that the company does not comment on pending litigation, but, she added, “we condemn human trafficking in any form.” She said Wyndham works with industry organizations to combat trafficking and provides training for employees and franchisees in the United States.