By Colleen Isherwood, Editor
SASKATOON, TORONTO — The news out of the U.S. on human trafficking is bleak, with The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) Law Center filing a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, seeking damages against Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Inc., Choice Hotels International, Inc. and G6 Hospitality, LLC, for facilitating and profiting from the sex trafficking of a minor.
Here in Canada, the news is about provincial hospitality associations working to help improve the situation. While Jim Bence of the SHHA has made headlines with his efforts to advance hoteliers' knowledge of human trafficking, Tony Elenis of ORHMA and other stakeholders met with Ontario Premier Doug Ford to discuss the issue.
In the last four weeks, Bence, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, has had eight interviews on this topic in an 11-day period. His interest was piqued by Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel Motel Association, around the Hotel Association of Canada boardroom table. “He mentioned that he'd been at a conference down in the States, and based on what he said and how he said it, I looked at [the situation] and found it jaw dropping, shocking.”
Bence then went to work in his home province. “I met with the provincial RCMP and Regina Vice to make sure my views were aligned with law enforcement. I got myself a chair at the table, meeting with Saskatoon Vice and city planners, saying that we really have to do something about this issue. After a meeting with the executive of Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police, reporter, Mark Melnychuk from the [Regina] Leader-Post, wrote an excellent article that opened the floodgates” [to the extensive media coverage of Bence speaking on this issue.]
One of the people he spoke with was John Gormley, a former Member of Parliament whose radio show has become an important part of life in Saskatchewan. Gormley has been a show host on 650 CKOM and 980 CJME for almost 20 years, covering the big topics and conversations, both local and international.
Bence told Gormley that many chains are implementing new training to help staff recognize the threat of traffickers. There are many signs that could be considered suspicious.
“[Staff can look for] how it is that people book rooms, who’s actually going into the rooms, where they request rooms [and] the request they get from guests,” he explained. “There’s all of these different pieces they can pay attention to that would indicate that maybe there’s trafficking going on.” He also mentioned young women coming in with much older men and indicators of physical abuse.
Bence said it’s important for hotels to report any suspicions to police to speed along the investigative process.
He added guests can also help. “We should be concerned about that kind of stuff, and then do something about it. Don’t necessarily get involved, but make sure that you’re picking up the phone (or) you’re going to the front desk,” he said. “Make sure somebody knows about it.”
Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Saskatchewan Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, then tweeted that Bence was really taking a lead on this issue. Bence queried her on the idea of a federal-provincial task force on the subject. Bence would like to use such a task force to work with existing legislation to make it easier to report cases of human trafficking.
He is currently working on a training system to be applied to all hotels in his association. The program is a “Saskatchewanized” version of one that came from ORHMA's Elenis. “It's a gift to whoever wants to have it. I think we are ahead of most jurisdictions on this,” Bence said.
Next steps include a proposed summit in early September, bringing together law enforcement, the [hospitality] industry, and Community, Health and Social Services.
Tony Elenis and stakeholders meet with Doug Ford
Meanwhile, on Feb. 4 in Toronto, Tony Elenis, president and CEO of ORHMA, along with thirteen stakeholders made up of educators and enforcement leaders, were invited to a meeting in Premier Doug Ford’s office to discuss Human Trafficking. Attendees included Attorney General Doug Downey, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones and Minister of Children, Community and Social Services/Associate Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues Jill Dunlop.
ORHMA applauded the government for focusing on the critical issue, which stems from many complex factors. Elenis told the group that hotels have become an unwilling participant in human trafficking’s modern day slavery machine. “It is about exploitation. We realize this is the second largest illicit crime, surpassed only by the sale of drugs and it is more concerning when it includes kids.
“There are intertwined aspects that need to be addressed including the judicial system and penalties associated with offenders, ….enough enforcement……communication efficiencies and related industry synergies.”
Elenis noted that in talking with victims and service providers there are key takeaways:
— “In addition to increasing our ability to identify,” with more evidence-based training programs – “we need to have enough services to help them afterwards.”
— A focus on victim consent before a report is made would be a better way to ensure a vulnerable person doesn’t end up somewhere they do not want to be, such as in front of law enforcement.
— The judiciary approach needs to change
“It would be incorrect to suggest that the hospitality industry is ignoring the issue of human trafficking. It will be correct to say the industry has been slow to understand this is happening, generally misinterpreting it as prostitution. This has positively changed.
“Hospitality can not afford to ignore this crime.”
Thus far training has been implemented by many hotels in many Ontario cities. Toronto hotels recently had a packed industry session, Elenis said. this training includes:
—Development of a set of Indicators by staff position to alert human trafficking occurrences.
— Staff posters in awareness and call numbers.
— Local enforcement presentations to hotel groups.
— Brands such as Marriott making on line training mandatory
Major American-owned brands are signing the The Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct (The Code) – which is a set of guidelines, policies, and procedures that signers agree are important standards for the industry in its role of preventing exploitation of children. Signers of The Code agree to make every effort to do their part to protect children by creating awareness and offering training to employees and guests.
“The number one reason in signing the code…. It Is the right thing to do,” Elenis noted. ACCOR, Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Days Inn and many other major hotel companies have signed on.
“We seen success in hotels in adopting The Code. Soon, non-membership will stand out more than membership as travelers become increasingly aware of this issue and choose to patronize companies that share the code,” Elenis said.
“Though The Code has been U.S.A.-based, many Canadian brands are U.S.A.-owned. Soon there will be hotel training available across Canada as the Hotel Association of Canada will lead a campaign towards this.”