APU Careers Careers & Learning Human Trafficking Intellectible Law Enforcement Podcast

Combating Human Trafficking in the Hospitality Industry

Podcast featuring Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D, J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and
Jessica Wickey, Faculty Member, University of Central Florida, Rosen College of Hospitality Management

Identifying human trafficking in the hospitality industry can be difficult because of the constant influx of guests. However, 80% of sex trafficking victims are recovered from hotels and motels so it’s critical that hospitality staff are vigilant and highly trained to identify trafficking. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Gary Deel talks to Jessica Wickey about her efforts to educate hospitality students to recognize indicators of sex trafficking and labor trafficking. While sex trafficking gets more attention, labor trafficking actually involves a greater number of enslaved people working as housekeepers, cleaners, landscapers, cooks—often for third-party vendors that provide labor services to hotels and motels. Learn the key indicators of sex and labor trafficking and what to do if you suspect illicit activity.

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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about human trafficking in the hospitality industry. My guest today is Jessica Wickey. Jessica is an instructor at the University of Central Florida, Rosen College of Hospitality Management. She is also a UCF alumna, graduating with her master’s in hospitality and tourism management in 2013. Jessica has 25 years of experience in the hospitality industry, including restaurants, resorts, events, convention centers, nonprofit fundraising, and live entertainment.

As director of the internship program at UCF, she launched Human Trafficking Education in the summer of 2020 creating robust curriculum to enhance the student’s internship education. Jessica has been heavily involved in community efforts to raise awareness and combat trafficking activities in the hospitality industry. Jessica, welcome to Intellectible, and thank you for being our guest today.

Jessica Wickey: Thank you so much, Gary, for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to have you. For the sake of not assuming too much, in terms of prior knowledge among our listening audience, can you share with us succinctly, and feel free to share as much nuance as necessary here, but what exactly is human trafficking? When we talk about this concept, are we talking about limitations to certain age groups? Is it always minors? Can an adult be trafficked?

[Podcast: Florida Laws Must Change: End Depositions of Human Trafficking Victims]

I guess an ancillary question that would be useful to provide context here as well is, is human trafficking the same thing as prostitution, whether it be in a legal or illegal jurisdiction? Currently prostitution is only legal in some counties in Nevada. This is a pretty limited legal industry, and, of course, it happens in many other areas illegally. But if you can provide an overview of the landscape of what we’re talking about today, and then we can dive into some of the specifics.

Jessica Wickey: All right. Thank you so much, Gary. That was a great intro and really a lot to unpack. Let’s talk about trafficking and what that looks like. Sex trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision and obtaining of a person for purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion.”

This person is actually made to do this act against their will. When you’re talking about prostitution, a lot of times prostitutes aren’t actually out there because that’s their dream job, is to stand on a corner and provide sex service to men.

They’re actually being trafficked and that happens a lot. When you look at underage minor people, minor children, anyone under the age of 18 who cannot give consent to sex, they are all considered being trafficked if they’re under the age of 18.

Now, when you look at labor trafficking, just to explain that a little bit, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, labor trafficking is known as modern day form of slavery. It’s defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation and provision of obtaining a person for labor or services through the use of force fraud and coercion.

That often happens specifically within our hospitality and tourism industry when the positions are not front facing, when they’re not visible to the guests, such as housekeeping, cleaners, landscapers. And often in a large industry, such as hospitality and tourism, the organizations use third-party vendors and those third-party vendors often don’t go through the same human resources recruitment process and onboarding as their other employees so they don’t go through those checks and balances. That’s a brief overview of labor and sex trafficking.

Dr. Gary Deel: Perfect. When we talk about these two categories, if I understand you correctly, in the labor context, insofar as it concerns the hospitality industry, we’re often talking about employees or workers within hospitality.

When we’re talking about sex trafficking, insofar as it concerns or touches the hospitality industry, is it fair to say that we’re more talking about activities and people that are on the guest side of the equation in terms of people that use hospitality establishments like hotels and motels for the purposes of providing forced sexual services or coercive sexual services to potential clients?

Jessica Wickey: The issue in the hospitality and tourism industry for sex trafficking is that 80% of victims who are recovered from being trafficked for sex are recovered from hotels and motels. That’s a huge component of where the activity is happening, and that’s why it’s important to be able to identify and report the trafficking within the hospitality and tourism industry.

For labor trafficking, and right now is a great example, we’re really at a deficit for human resources and for staff. Often organizations are really pulling its strings to find qualified team members to fill positions. They use these third-party vendors. Third-party vendors, there are some amazing organizations out there, and there’s also some bad actors, and those bad actors are the ones that are actually trafficking human beings for labor trafficking.

Dr. Gary Deel: Understood. If we had to try to put our finger on the pulse of the industry and get a sense of where the problem is most dire, obviously, we don’t want anybody coerced into doing anything that is either against their will or under abusive conditions. Period. But do you have a sense of how ubiquitous or prevalent these two problems are by comparison, and is there one that’s significantly worse that should receive more immediate attention?

Jessica Wickey: You would think that sex trafficking would be more prevalent, but in surprise, it’s labor trafficking. A lot of that labor trafficking looks like bonded labor or debt bondage. What that is is when a person is then brought either out of the country or in the country and brought into a position to work, and then by the means of that employer, then basically owns them and they have to pay off that either travel to get to that position and job or that location, and it becomes a bonded labor, debt bondage situation. That’s actually really prevalent.

It’s prevalent in hospitality and tourism, it’s prevalent within the agriculture, specifically within the agriculture in Florida as well. That’s what labor trafficking looks like. That labor trafficking is much more common than sex trafficking in the numbers.

The sex trafficking often happens out of our eyesight. It’s in the distance behind us, and nobody’s really paying attention to it. It’s hidden in the dark corners of what we would see in our industry. Even though 80% of victims are recovered from hotels and motels that are sex trafficked, there’s no light shown on it. It’s very hidden, it’s very private, it’s in the dark recesses.

If you look at mega events, and this is something that I’ve been researching recently, the Super Bowl, there was over 100 arrests for sex trafficking for the Super Bowl. If you look at the Final Four games, there’s trafficking arrest for sex trafficking. Mega events happen to be almost an inviter of the bad actors that come and they think, it’s almost like that “in Vegas” mentality. Large and mega events, people who would like to purchase or use sex trafficking, or maybe they don’t even realize it, maybe they think they’re getting an escort, maybe they think they’re getting a prostitute, but oftentimes these women and men are trafficked.

Large and mega events bring this idea that there’s this excitement that it’s happening outside and you can do things that you normally would not do. All the research that I’ve been conducting now on what it looks like in mega events for trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, is that the Vegas mentality of “What happens here, stays here” often happens. People become less afraid of the consequences and more aggressive with the experiences.

What I mean by that is that they would do things that they normally wouldn’t do. When you see around large events, like large sporting events, large conventions, big concert series or multiple-day festivals, you see activities that people would normally not partake in their home. And that’s important to think about when you’re thinking about hospitality and tourism and the events in entertainment industries that people come expecting this experience, and sometimes that includes sex trafficking.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. I see your point with respect to the masked or secretive side of that industry, and that is part of what makes it so difficult as an industry for us to detect and deter this kind of thing, particularly if the traffickers are savvy and sophisticated with their methods.

I do have a question with respect to labor trafficking. When we talk about sex trafficking, I think we all have a visceral sense of what that entails. If you’ve watched enough movies or you’ve seen episodes of “Law and Order,” you understand intuitively what sexual assault and rape is like, and obviously this offends the moral conscience of our society. When we talk about labor trafficking, the circumstances of those conditions might be a little bit less clear.

Can you paint a picture for us of a typical person involved in a labor trafficking situation? Is it just the case that the conditions of their work are poorly maintained or that they are underpaid, they don’t get breaks, or is it something far more nefarious that we’re not imagining in the context of this scenario?

Jessica Wickey: Thank you for introducing labor trafficking, and it’s an important topic to talk about with trafficking. Let’s start with talking about child labor. Child labor is considered anybody under the age of 18 is child labor. Right now it’s estimated that 246 million children are exploited for child labor all over the world.

What that looks like is where a child is forced to work against their will, often that can look like in the agricultural industry, working in the fields and pulling fruits and vegetables and working long hours. For adults, there’s the bonded labor or debt bondage. That is the most widely used method of enslaving individuals.

Victims become bonded laborers when their labor is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan or service in which the terms and conditions have not been defined or in which the value of the victim services are reasonably assessed and not applied toward the liquidation of the debt.

What I mean by that is that often a trafficker will lure in a person with the gains of the CEO mentality. “You have a great job, come to America, let’s get you working.” Often within agriculture, there’s also entertainment. There’s one case that I saw with a female. She was groomed by a trafficker to work in the entertainment industry. This trafficker was an actual in the music industry and had a lively music background and lured her in for trafficking, and that became a sex trafficking issue.

With labor trafficking, often, this is a lot of foreign people that come to America with an idea of having this great American dream. They will be trafficked here, coming to America, once they get here, they’ve been provided this really Cinderella story is painted for them. That “Come here, you’re going to have this great job and you’re going to make this great money to help your family back home, and then you’re going to have this wonderful home.”

When they get here, the traffickers take their passports, threaten their lives, threaten their family’s lives, say, “Now you’ve owed me. No matter if you’ve paid me or not, it’s never enough,” and it becomes a situation that’s very hard to get out of. Often the living conditions are very bad, where it’s multiple families or multiple 10 to 20 people living inside a very small apartment or house and working long hours, seven days a week.

Something that I tell my students and something that we talk about in the Human Trafficking Education is being able to identify people who are being trafficked in labor. If you see the same housekeeper working seven days a week, something’s not right. If you see the same cleaner working seven days a week, every time you come to work, the same cleaner is there.

Then that’s something that you need to look at and you need to talk to HR. If you’re the general manager, you need to be doing background checks on those third-party vendors. If you’re coming to work, the person has the same clothes on day in, day out. They look disheveled, they look exhausted. I know it’s the hospitality and tourism industry. I realized that we work a lot. But if you see that same person that looks like they’re tired and they just look disheveled, ask questions. Don’t stay on the sideline. If the language is a barrier, then find a translator to translate that.

There’s other ways, as well, to help your team to identify trafficking in the workforce. Mandatory, require that all third-party vendors share social security cards and birth certificates or passports. That’s a number one way. Make sure that they go through the same onboarding process that all of your team members do, and don’t leave that information up on the third-party vendor side.

Dr. Gary Deel: With respect to labor trafficking, if an institution, a business or an employee within a business identifies labor trafficking or what they suspect to be reasonably so, labor trafficking taking place in their organization, or even insofar as victims of labor trafficking themselves are concerned, is there a law enforcement resource that can be tapped for this kind of thing? What kind of police response methods are entailed when there’s an allegation of labor trafficking taking place, either from the victims themselves or from some third party that observes something they believe to be labor trafficking?

Jessica Wickey: I’m not an attorney or a law enforcement, so I can only tell you from the education side. Right now, there’s no policies protecting people who are trafficked for labor. There’s none at all. There are two visas, which is a T visa and a U visa that can be used if the person is being trafficked and they’re being hurt and in immediate harm and danger, and they can grant those visas to stay in the United States and not be sent back to their home country. But there’s very little policy and law that protects people who are being labor trafficked.

As far as sex trafficking, most of the time, the actual victim who’s trafficked will be charged with prostitution. This is a really big initiative within law enforcement, is being able to train law enforcement to identify victims rather than suspects. There’s a lot of law enforcement training that’s going on right now, and some of it includes this topic.

[Related: The Challenges Law Enforcement Faces to Prevent Human Trafficking]

Corporal Alan Wilkett, he was a leader in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office on Trafficking. He helped be a really big advocate for House Bill 851 to be passed, and House Bill 851 is the bill that mandates training in the hospitality and tourism industry on human trafficking. He was a leader in that.

He’s been the great resource of really helping me to understand what law enforcement’s part is in combating trafficking, and it’s really being able to identify victims rather than suspects, and then to get those victims in contact with advocacies to help them.

To add a little bit on that point, people who are trafficked are the vulnerable populations. What I mean by that is the children in foster care, the runaways, the lower socioeconomic children or young people with one-parent family homes. A lot of times the traffickers will groom. It doesn’t happen overnight.

It could really be working for a year or more, where they’re grooming these victims to make them think like they are their boyfriend and the Romeo scenario, until they’ve got them under their spell and now they’re being trafficked. There’s two types of the grooming process for trafficking, the CEO and the Romeo. The CEO often offers an opportunity for a job. “Come work with my great organization, that you’re going to do great things,” and then it becomes the debt bondage of having to pay them back.

Then there’s the Romeo, where they groom you as, “Oh, you’re my girlfriend, I’ll buy you very nice things and take you nice places and treat you very well,” and then say, “Okay, now I need you to do something for me. I need you to have sex.” The average person who is sex trafficked is raped 6,000 times. That’s the data from the Polaris Project, which by the way, you can hyperlink the Polaris Project, they have a lot of really great data on trafficking in the United States.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. We’ll make sure that we do that in the transcript below this audio recording. It sounds like there’s a reluctance, understandably so, with respect to victims of trafficking, whether it be labor or sex, to report the crimes because of either their immigration status or their lack of citizenship, or, as you mentioned with respect to sex trafficking, the implication of criminal complicity in the act itself. The difference by nature between voluntary prostitution and trafficking is the coercion element.

But the question becomes how much of that, if at all, in a criminal court can be proven as opposed to was this a voluntary act on the part of the individual being engaged in sex for payment, or was this something where they were forced into it? I would imagine there are times where that’s clear as day, and then there are other times where it may be less clear that makes it more difficult and may make for a more problematic situation when people need help that they may be reluctant to ask for it because they’re concerned about the consequences for themselves negatively if they seek out assistance from law enforcement or from any kind of authority that could potentially lend aid.

Jessica Wickey: It’s very true. Most people who are trafficked will go back to their trafficker multiple times before finally being rescued and recovered. It’s a sad statistic that it will take multiple times for most victims to actually get help and stay with help.

We got into this fight of human trafficking at the UCF Rosen College. In 2017, we launched a Leadership Development Workshop series, where I invite industry professionals to come in and speak to our students about trending topics in their internships. A lot of the topics were on professional etiquette, multi-generations in the workplace, empathy in the workplace, professionalism, really just topics to guide them into better leaders.

I invited Tomas Lares, President and Founder of United Abolitionists to come in and speak to our students about what human trafficking looks like in the hospitality and tourism industry. I was surprised. I didn’t know some of these identifiers and I had worked 25 years in the industry.

So, 200 students attended the workshop. We invited him in in 2019 in March. We had been doing the workshop series for about two years. We invited him in in March of 2019, 200 students attended. At the end of the workshop, 30 students said they believed they had identified trafficking in their workplace, and one student believed they were about to be trafficked.

This was very alarming news for us. Very alarming. We went to the Dean, our Dean of the college with this information, and said, “We would like to create education to be able to educate our students to identify and report human trafficking in the hospitality and tourism industry. They’re the future general managers of hotels, they’re the future directors of convention centers and airports and tourism and destination management,” and the Dean said, “Yes, we do. Let’s take it a next step. Let’s make it a mission of the Rosen College to be a center of excellence in human trafficking education in the hospitality and tourism industry.”

With that, we went ahead and started putting together the curriculum, launched it in the summer of 2020 with a soft launch and a full launch in the fall. We actually included three different modules in the three internship courses that are required for all 3,000 undergraduate students at the Rosen College. All of them actually take their internship courses, and these modules with training are included in the online content. It’s been a great pleasure to really get these students aware. It’s a horrible topic, but literally we are training 3,000 students a year to identify and report trafficking in the workplace.

What that looks like is if a person comes in and they ask for a room on the outside of the building, if they ask for multiple key cards, if they’re paying in cash or asked to pay with cash, if they’re only renting for one night, one person is renting multiple rooms, the same person. Those are really key indicators of what sex trafficking would look like at a hotel.

[Related: How to Identify Signs of Human Trafficking]

How can you identify one of your team members is working with the traffickers? This happens a lot more than we would even know. I don’t know that there’s much research on that out there, but I know the identifying factors for you to look at to see if one of your team members is working with the trafficker is: Does this team member want to work the same shift every time when they didn’t want to work that shift before? Is it an overnight shift and now they’re volunteering to work that shift? Do they show up and they now have new items, fancy new jewelry, fancy new purses, a new car, and they’re still working the same position that they’ve been the whole time?

If a guest calls and asks if one team member is specifically working that shift, that’s an indicator as well. If a guest has a team member’s personal cell phone number, that’s an indicator as well. You, as a leader in the industry, need to be able to manage and watch your team, and the best way to combat that is to have clear conversations with your team and training. Not just one time when you’re onboarded, but annual training to be able to identify and report trafficking specifically within your hotel or motel.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. It takes what can be a difficult problem to detect and makes it even more so difficult if you have someone within the organization who is complicit with the act and can cover up evidence or make it more difficult to identify the indicators, some of which you mentioned here.

Now, it’s intuitive, obviously, that hotels and motels are the hotbeds for the sex trafficking side of the industry because it is their product that lends itself to being a venue for these acts to take place.

But insofar as the larger hospitality industry is concerned and labor trafficking is the subject. Are there particular sub-sectors that find more of this activity than others? Is it also hotels and motels or is it restaurants or is it casinos, nightclubs, cruise lines, theme parks? Is it ubiquitous or are there some areas where this happens more often than not on the labor trafficking side?

Jessica Wickey: For the labor trafficking, it’s often within restaurants and hotels. It can be for large events. Cruise lines are a little different because cruise lines, you have to go through a very large, it’s maritime law protected, so most cruise lines have a very stringent onboarding policies and procedures. It’s much more difficult to have that happen on a cruise line.

However, within the restaurants and the hotels and motels and lodging industry, absolutely. These non-front-facing roles are where people could be labor trafficked. As for sex trafficking, if you look back at the data that I said earlier is that 80% of victims are rescued and recovered from hotels and motels. That’s a huge component when you look at that, and then the mega events and the whole capture around that, about being at a new place in a new area and trying different things that you wouldn’t do at home.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think we should point out, for the sake of full disclosure to our audience, that there’s been a bit of a spotlight on the cruise line industry in recent years about labor practices that many would consider to be unfair. But we’re obviously not necessarily drawing an analogy between what we would call human labor trafficking and what someone considered to be, well, these are really long hours and the pay isn’t all that great on the cruise lines.

That’s a separate discussion entirely, but I think we would probably draw a line to distinguish what is traditionally, by definition, a labor trafficking situation with a cruise line situation where you have internationals working that are not subject to American labor standards, and therefore they could be paid less than we’d be accustomed to, they could be worked longer hours than we’d be accustomed to. But correct me if I’m wrong, there is a distinction there between these two topics, right?

Jessica Wickey: Absolutely. What the cruise lines, they have their own policies and procedures. When you work on a cruise ship, you work seven days a week for your entire contract. Most contracts for cruise lines are either four months, six months or eight month contracts. You’re working seven days a week for those four months, six months or eight months, and that’s actually indicated upon your hire.

Those are long hours and let’s get real, right? Who wants to work seven days a week? But often people will do that because, on top of that, if you work seven days a week for four months, then you get three months off. There’s a balance and decisions to be made for your career, right?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I think an important element of distinction there is, regardless of whether or not you agree with the circumstances of the work, the question is: Was it made clear to you at the onset before you signed up? I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a realistic sense of what to expect if you go to work for a cruise line, whether or not you like those circumstances.

Whereas when we’re often talking about human labor trafficking, there’s an inherent element of deception there, of luring you into some situation under false pretenses, only to find ultimately that you are coerced to do things you never thought you would have to do, did not want to do, and the situation changes in drastic ways.

This has been great, and I’m really excited about the work that UCF Rosen College is doing. For the sake of our disclosure to listeners, we’re both faculty at the UCF Rosen College, and I’m happy to be a part of an organization that is dedicated to trying to raise awareness of these issues and combat them in any way we can in the industry. Are there any other points that we haven’t had a chance to discuss so far that you’d like to share with our listeners before we conclude?

Jessica Wickey: Yes, absolutely. There’s a few things. First off, pay attention. Check on your friends and your family, your younger brothers and sisters. If you notice them changing, have conversations with them. If you notice them coming home with new sparkly things, new handbag, new phone, getting their hair done, nails done, whatever it may be, talk to them, they could be being groomed, and it’s a long process. Have those open conversations. Get involved. Get involved locally with human trafficking awareness and education and support that.

Here in Orlando, you can reach out to United Abolitionists. They’re at stophumantrafficking.com. They are great resource. Get some training and be an advocate.

Then the last thing I’ll say is if you think someone is being trafficked, if you see something out of the ordinary, if you’re out and you see something that just doesn’t look right, if you’re at an airport and you notice that the person there doesn’t have a cell phone and their own identification, if you’re working at the airport, that seems odd. If one person is controlling that.

If you see something that just seems odd to you and it doesn’t feel right, report it, because the only person who’s going to be offended is the person who’s trafficking that person. But guess what? You could be saving an individual. I don’t want everybody to call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline every time you think, but if you see something that I believe that person is in trouble, you have to do something about it, because it’s up to us to stop this. If we all work together, we can actually make a difference and save some lives.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think those are some great points, and it echoes the mantra of the Department of Homeland Security, which has some materials and resources on human trafficking of different kinds, and that is, of course, “If you see something, say something.”

The suspicious activity of virtually any kind, we want to make sure that we treat it as if it could be a concern rather than ignoring it and allowing things that could potentially be harmful to other people to go unnoticed, unreported and unaddressed. I think those are great points.

We’ll make sure that we include some of the links to the great work that you’re doing, the organizations that you’re affiliated with and those resources that you would recommend in our transcription for this episode, so that folks that may have concerns about this in the industry or may have observed things that they would subsequently question, have somewhere to go and they know what to do with it. I want to thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics today, and thank you for joining me for this episode of Intellectible.

Jessica Wickey: Thank you so much. I appreciate it, Gary. Have a great day.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely, Jessica. Thanks. Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various American Public University-sponsored blogs and podcasts. Be well and stay safe, everyone.

Gary Deel

Dr. Gary Deel is a faculty member with the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds an M.S. in Space Studies, an M.A. in Psychology, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership, an M.A. in Criminal Justice, a J.D. in Law, and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches classes in various subjects for the University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, Colorado State University, and others.

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