Hotel brands owned by Hilton, Intercontinental and Best Western are among a number of leading global chains accused of profiting from sex trafficking.
In a landmark case that lawyers claim demonstrates “industry-wide failures” to prevent sex trafficking, it has been alleged that women and children were held captive, abused and sold for sex in their guest rooms across the US.
A total of 13 women have accused a dozen hotel groups of wilfully ignoring warning signs that sexual exploitation was taking place on their premises.
The litigation, which was filed this week in a federal court in Columbus, Ohio, marks the first time the hotel industry has faced legal action as a group. It draws together 13 separate lawsuits filed in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Texas.
New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg – litigating on behalf of the women, many of whom were minors when the trafficking was alleged to have occurred – said the hotels “derived profit” and “benefited financially” by “providing a marketplace for sex trafficking”.
“It seems clear to us that these hotels knowingly put their own profits over the protection of the children, teenagers and young women who were being sold for sex at their hotels,” said Paul Pennock, trafficking and abuse practice group leader at the firm.
“We believe that they neglected their duty to take action to stop these heinous crimes for decades, and it is time for them to be held responsible for what they perpetuated through total inaction.”
One of the women in the complaint says she was held captive for six weeks in 2012 at various Wyndham Hotels locations, where repeated beatings broke her nose on two occasions, left her lip permanently scarred and caused an infection on her face. She was 26 at the time.
“I just wish that people realise how much [sex trafficking] really is here in the US,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a shady hotel or a nice hotel, it’s going on in all of them.”
An estimated 80% of all human trafficking arrests occur in or around hotels, the lawsuit claims. In 2014, 92% of the calls the National Human Trafficking Hotline received involved reports of sex trafficking taking place at hotels, according to the litigation.
Despite well-publicised industry-wide initiatives to tackle child and sex trafficking, including staff training to identify potential victims, the hotel chains named in the lawsuit failed to adequately implement such policies, and in some cases failed to implement any policies at all, the lawsuit claims.
“As well as the trafficking of enslaved children and exploited women in the sex industry, hotels should also be concerned about the risks of forced labour in ancillary services such as cleaning and catering,” said Aidan McQuade, former director of Anti-Slavery International.
“But this case should be a reminder to all businesses in all industries, not just hospitality, of something they should have learned over at least the past 10 years: unless you can establish effective systems to identify and remediate slavery and trafficking where it occurs in your supply chains and operations, you may well be the next held to account in the courts of law and public opinion.”