Things you don't know about sex trafficking

Tania Ferlin (left) and Lisa Cotton.

Tania Ferlin (left) and Lisa Cotton.

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

TORONTO — The hotel industry has a unique and important role to play in the fight against sex trafficking. Hotel employees are often in the best position to see potential signs if they know what to look for. 

Lisa Cotton and Tania Ferlin spoke to delegates at the recent Hotel Association of Canada conference in sex trafficking and what hoteliers can do to protect their guests, their employees and their hotel's reputation.

Cotton works with Covenant House in Toronto, to provide housing for the survivors, while Ferlin, who works at Hyatt Regency Toronto, is at the front end with Meeting Professionals against Human Trafficking (MPAHT), a two-year-old group of meeting professionals dedicated to raising awareness of human trafficking.

As Ferlin said, “We try to diagnose what is wrong and find a solution.”

The headlines show that this is happening in Canada, Cotton told the audience of hoteliers.

“It is one of the fastest-growing crimes and hotels are where it happens,” she said. “They isolate the victims by moving them from hotel to hotel and city to city. It’s essential for hotels to maintain their reputations, and Toronto police are starting to name hotels.”

Sex trafficking is a multibillion dollar business that is under-reported, Cotton said. “For every victim we hear about, 100 go unreported.”

One of the most surprising aspects of the presentation dealt with who the victims are. The perpetrators look for students or other young women with no self confidence. They romance them and shower them with attention. One girl can make a pimp $250,000 per year. The traffickers impose lots of rules on the girls — and most of them didn’t understand that they were being pimped out.

Here is what friends and family might notice about the victim. They start wearing nice, expensive clothes. They’re not telling people where they’re going. Their grades start to slip. They have a boyfriend but aren’t talking about him.

Covenant house has a video about the victimization process that they are showing to schools and in hotel training sessions.

“Over 90 per cent are Canadian girls,” said Cotton. “The average age is 17, but they’re being recruited younger and younger. It can happen to anyone — it doesn’t matter what their age, gender, culture or neighbourhood. Contrary to popular belief, some come from intact, middle class, stable families.

“The young men [perpetrators] are also involved in guns, etc. They meet the victims at school, at the mall, at parties or at the library — or online, which is hard to track. They get to know the victim, find their insecurities and vulnerabilities.

“You get in there, you find the crack, and some just need to hear, ‘I love you.’”

Tania Ferlin (left) is a member of Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking. With her is Lisa Cotton of Covenant House.

Tania Ferlin (left) is a member of Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking. With her is Lisa Cotton of Covenant House.

A year and a half ago, Ferlin met with Andrea Boulden of the TD Wealth Management team for lunch and a hotel tour. Boulden was one of the founding members of Meeting Professionals against Human Trafficking. She said that Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton and Accor were all offering training for all employees regarding human trafficking. She added that yes, it is actually happening here.

The Toronto police have a team of 14 people and York Region, etc., also have teams.

Ferlin reached out to Covenant House, interviewed survivors and their parents — and joined the association. Back then there were only four members of MPAHT; now there are more than 40.

Myth Busting

Myth #1: it only happens in one star hotels. Fact #1: any hotel, motel or Airbnb, urban or rural, can be involved. Traffickers like to move their victims around to keep them disoriented. They have started using five-star hotels for the younger victims.

The ECPAT Code of Conduct encourages tourism-related companies to sign a Code of Conduct and commit to training. Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Radisson, Choice, Wyndham, Accor, MPI and Conference Direct are among the companies that have signed on. 

They sign up because it’s the right thing to do. It meets Corporate Social Responsibiity best practices. And meeting planners are starting to use it as a decision-making factor when choosing a hotel.

Here’s what to watch for in hotels:

 — The man pays with cash.

— The female is dressed inappropriately for their age/ the weather.

— Constant “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.

— Major demand for towels, new bedding.

So what can hotels do?

Hotels are in a unique position to help increase awareness and identify the signs of sex trafficking — and perhaps the most important role they have is to be aware and start talking about it.