Rhonelle Bruder is an internationally recognized speaker, advocate and herself a survivor of human trafficking

“Every person who works in a hotel has the opportunity to see something.” This was the message delivered by Rachel Norman, Prevention Development & Training specialist Covenant House Toronto, to more than 150 hotel-industry attendees at last week’s “unseen: uniting to end human trafficking” event at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. The half-day information session, spearheaded by Accor and sponsored by Hotelier magazine, was aimed at raising awareness of human trafficking — specific to the hospitality industry in Toronto — and educating hotel frontline workers on spotting the signs of human trafficking at their properties.

“Most major hotel chains have been introducing training to their staff to help them recognize the signs of human trafficking and some are even encouraging reward members to donate points to organizations that support the cause,” said Rosanna Caira, editor/publisher of Hotelier magazine, who facilitated the sessions. “There’s also been greater industry involvement, both at the association level through the Greater Toronto Hotel Association, and through many hotels. It warms my heart that we’ve joined forces on this initiative — it’s gratifying to see how much more of an impact can be made by working with all of the industry stakeholders.”

Human trafficking is a very real and prevalent issue in Canada. From 2009 to 2016, there were 1,099 police-reported human-trafficking incidents in Canada, with 66 per cent of cases reported in Ontario. Due to the hidden nature of human trafficking, these are only reported incidents. The RCMP estimates that there are an additional 1,400 cases of human trafficking each year. 

“Every year, thousands of hotel employees are trained on how to identify and stop trafficking, and these kinds of things unite us all to end this epidemic,” said Caira. “Great progress is being made, but there’s more work that needs to be done and, as with all initiatives, it starts with education. And that’s why we’re here today. The industry can’t afford to turn a blind eye to this problem.”

Heather McCrory, Chief Executive Officer of North and Central America, Accor, told the audience implementing the appropriate measures to combat the grave violation of human rights is “an ongoing effort and we’re pleased that you’re here today. It’s really about educating [hotel] staff, working with their peers to help combat this criminal delinquency. This work is top priority to us [at Accor].”

Detective Constable Andy Medeiros, Sex Crimes, Human Trafficking Enforcement, Toronto Police, started the day with his presentation on the definition and scope of human trafficking. He also dispelled some of the. Common myths surrounding the victimology of this crime. “People think the victims [of human trafficking are predominantly from other countries, when in fact, more than 95 per cent of our cases are domestic cases — high-school students, young adults, young women from Toronto, and from various parts of the province and the country. These are Canadian women. This is a homegrown problem we have. It’s part of the global epidemic, but it’s happening here.”

Medeiros explained traffickers are inherently transient. “They don’t stay in one place, because then we find them. So, they like to move their victims from place to place to place because it confuses them. When we interview victims [and ask them] ‘what hotel were you guys are at?’ they don’t know, because they’ve been at so many. Every night, they’re changing hotels, changing hotel rooms. These guys like to keep these women confused. By keeping them confused, they’re isolated. They don’t can’t tell people where they are.”

And, he said, hotels provide ease of access and comfort. “Purchasers don’t like to go into some shady house in a bad area. They want to go to a hotel, where they know there’s a certain standard of cleanliness. It’s public, so they’re not concerned for their safety and there’s a lot of people around so they can just blend in with the general crowd.”

But are hotels liable for sex acts occurring on the property. According to Medeiros, the Criminal Code states if anyone knowingly permits someone under the age of 18 to be on the premise for sexual activity, they can be held liable. 

“I don’t know any industry or hotel that’s been charged with this particular offense,” said Medeiros. “[However,] there’s a class-action lawsuit [in the U.S.] launched by 13 women who say the hotels had to have known — or ought to have known —this was going on in their hotels. And they were essentially allowed to profit from it. So, it’s important that, as an industry, working collectively with partners, we eliminate this venue for these traffickers, but more so create awareness for all of us in the [hotel] industry.”

First-hand Account

Next, Rhonelle Bruder took to the stage. Bruder is an internationally recognized speaker, advocate and herself a survivor of human trafficking. She began by identifying some of the main vulnerabilities traffickers look for in their victims, such as low self-esteem, bad family situations and feelings of isolation. 

“When looking for these vulnerabilities, they’re looking for them in children. They’re looking for them in our children. They’re sitting down with people who are dealing with self-esteem issues, feelings of low self-worth, young people who are isolated. [Young people who] don’t have a group or crowd they can connect to — who have dealt with trauma or abuse. They’re tapping into these vulnerabilities.”

She offered advice for hotel staff when it comes to spotting the signs. “You may have already met someone like me and you didn’t even know it,” she said. “When you saw me in your lobby, you wouldn’t have instantly said ‘she’s a victim of sex trafficking.’ I wasn’t bruised. I didn’t have tattoos — the brands traffickers sometimes forced their victims to have — because my trafficker hated tattoos. And if you would have spoken to me, I would have seemed like a normal kid.”

But, she said, there would have been signs. Victims are often dressed very provocatively in short skirts, little shorts, lots of makeup — attire you’re not accustomed to seeing a child wear. Employers probably have processes and procedures if staff suspect someone is being sex trafficked and she recommended hotel staff follow those procedures and don’t try to save victims.

Instead, lead with kindness, compassion and empathy, she said, explaining victims of sex trafficking have been so dehumanized, they don’t think they deserve anything better in life. Bruder said smiling at them, asking ‘how are you doing?’ and looking them in the eyes can leaven a bigger impression than you realize.  Most importantly, she reminded attendees, you have to understand what you’re seeing is a victim. They may be loud, they may be cursing, they may be aggressive. But that’s a self-defence mechanism. That’s how they survive. 

Spotting the Signs

Caira led a panel of subject-matter experts and industry partners to discuss what the hotel industry can do to better train its members to spot the signs of human trafficking at their properties. Panelists included Ashley Tingley, stakeholder relations & promotions advisor, the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking; Detective Constable Andy Medeiros, Sex Crimes, Human Trafficking Enforcement, Toronto Police Service; Liam O’Brien, director, Security & Emergency Management, Fairmont Royal York; Andrea Boulden, Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking; and Terry Mundell, president & CEO, Greater Toronto Hotel Association. 

“A good place to start is to have training by an organization such as Covenant House,” said Tingley. “It’s also important to ensure any policies or training you’re doing is complemented by presentations and training by survivors [like Rhonelle] to ensure the policies you’re putting in place are informed and ensure we’re not doing more harm. Survivors [may not] necessarily want help or be ready to accept help so for an adult potential victim of trafficking, intervening might not be the right option at that time. I know it’s a little bit different when we start to discuss minors, but ensuring our overall policy and the way we’re approaching this is as victim-centred and person-centred as possible.”

According to O’Brien, for hotel staff to be able to help, they need to feel confident that whatever is brought forth to management is going to be dealt with appropriately. 

“We’d obviously always rather [potential trafficking situations] be brought to our attention, and then through an investigation or through the process we’ve set up, determine that it’s not what it seems to be. But if it is, that the proper steps will be taken,” O’Brien said. “I can guarantee everyone in this room has heard the saying, ‘you see something, say something.’ It’s cliché; it’s catchy; and it works.”

He says hotels need to ensure staff are being trained on the indicators — what’s suspicious and how to recognize those. “But that’s just the beginning. We need to ensure we’re also providing education and knowledge to our frontline staff, our front desk, our housekeepers, who do recognize the signs, that they, too, at that time, could be in a vulnerable situation. It can be 2 a.m. and this individual is checking in, there’s only a front-desk agent — there’s nobody else in the lobby, or it could be a housekeeper. And you can find yourself in the room alone. So, we also need to provide them with a sense of safety and education on how to discreetly and safely extract themselves from a situation so that they can report to their manager.”

So what signs should frontline hotel workers, such as front-desk employee, be watching out for? Panelists pointed to behaviours common to trafficking victims. These included no control over money or personal belongings, checking in alone while her trafficker waits outside or in the lobby, no license-plate information provided at check, use of online booking/check-in or insisting on paying cash. Room selection can be another red flag, as traffickers prefer multiple rooms (one per victim) all side by side or close to one another. 

For the housekeeping department, Medeiros said traffickers will often decline housekeeping services, yet request multiple linen and towel changes. There will often be sex paraphernalia in the room after they check out. But, Medeiros said, what you don’t see is often as important as what you do see. For example, phones that have been unplugged or garbage receptacles that have been removed all together to hide evidence.

Knowledge is Power

The event wrapped up with a one-hour training session from Rachel Norman, Prevention Development & Training specialist Covenant House Toronto, who walked attendees through a range of topics including why traffickers choose hotels, warning signs by department, what to do if you suspect someone is being trafficked in your hotel and resources available to both hotel staff and trafficking victims. 

“It’s happening to people that are just like you and I,” she said. “The victims could be somebody your daughter goes to school with, somebody you take the GO train with every day or who works at the Starbucks down the street.”

At the end of the day, the parting message was that human trafficking is an issue that impacts countless communities. And if progress is to be made, action needs to be a collective effort. As hospitality professionals, everyone plays an important role in the fight to end human trafficking.


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