New Report Details Exploitation of Hotel Industry Workers

Robert Wright/The New York Times

From The New York Times:

by Karen Schwartz

Relaxing vacations mean little work for travelers, thanks to the host of people who work as housekeepers, bellhops and cooks. But a new analysis has found that the largely invisible nature of these jobs means workers can sometimes be exploited by those who market in human trafficking, even within the United States.

To help identify where human trafficking occurs in the United States, Polaris, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating modern slavery, reviewed calls made to its National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) between December 2007 and December 2016. In non-sex-related cases involving workers in hotels, motels, resorts and casinos, 124 pertained to human trafficking, in which force, fraud or coercion were allegedly used to compel the victim to stay in their situation; and 510 cases involved workplace exploitation, including abuse and labor violations, according to its report, released last month.

The calls specific to the hospitality industry were culled from a total of 32,208 reports of potential human trafficking and 10,085 cases of possible labor exploitation made to the hotline during those nine years. The analysis of the calls also identified two dozen other segments, some of which included health and beauty (spas, hair and nail salons), recreation (golf courses, swimming pools and amusement parks), landscaping (public and private grounds and gardens), restaurants and food service, and carnivals.

“Because human trafficking is so diverse and heterogeneous and dynamic, you can’t fight it all at once. You have to break it into its distinct types and actually fight it type by type,” said Bradley Myles, the chief executive officer of Polaris, which worked with lawmakers in 2005 on the reauthorization of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

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In the hospitality industry, for instance, there is a balance between fighting sex trafficking where a hotel might be the venue, and labor trafficking, where victimized women and men work as front desk attendants, bell staff and, most frequently, housekeepers, according to Mr. Myles and the report. Polaris has partnered in the past with the hotel brands Carlson, Wyndham and Marriott to fight trafficking and assist victims.

While labor trafficking accounted for only 16 percent of the hotline calls, Polaris maintains that it is chronically underreported, in part because many of those being manipulated are unaware that they are victims of a crime. Of the other calls to the hotline, some were sex trafficking, some were sex- and labor-related, and some were unidentified, according to Jennifer Penrose, the director of Polaris’s data analysis program.

Having an understanding of who is being trafficked and how is a “game-changer,” said Janet Drake, a senior assistant attorney general in Colorado. “If we can’t identify who is being trafficked and what those circumstances are, we can’t allocate our limited resources in a meaningful way,” she said.

Last year, federal officials arrested nearly 2,000 people for human trafficking in various commercial enterprises. From those cases, over 400 trafficking victims were identified, according to Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That number is also likely low, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office released last June. Some of the prosecutors and law enforcement officials interviewed by the G.A.O. said that it was particularly challenging to identify labor trafficking because it “often occurs behind closed doors,” while the services offered by those forced into prostitution are frequently advertised online.

Privacy policies prevent Polaris from sharing the names of those who called the organization’s hotline. Sally Agaton did not call the hotline and isn’t affiliated with Polaris, but her story, shared in a telephone interview from her home in Queens, is similar to some scenarios described in the Polaris report. Ms. Agaton, 53, is on the board of an organization that assists Filipino domestic workers in New York and New Jersey, the Damayan Migrant Worker Association. Damayan is an affiliate of the nonprofit National Domestic Workers Alliance, which arranged for her interview.

Ms. Agaton’s ordeal began while trying to provide for her family — her husband was incapacitated after a stroke and the youngest of their three children has special needs. She applied to work in the United States through a labor recruitment agency in Manila. By the time she arrived in Portland, Ore., in 2008 with a dozen other hopeful Filipino workers, she owed $3,000 for her H-2B visa, airfare and interest on money that she had borrowed from a lending agency recommended by the recruiter.

Although Ms. Agaton’s contract specified that she would work 40 hours per week at $8.50 an hour as a housekeeper, she said none of the jobs she worked in hotels in Scottsdale, Ariz., Mackinac Island, Mich., and Bossier Parish, La., gave her those wages, and they seldom gave her that many hours.

“The agency tricked us,” she said. “I was treated as a slave.”

The usual deductions, the cost of a bus pass and an inflated amount for rent were withheld from her paycheck, Ms. Agaton said, recalling that she was sometimes left with as little as $50 a week for food, loan repayment and support for her children, who were 19, 18 and 8 years old when she last saw them nine years ago.

“I am working only three to four hours and three days only, so I can’t survive,” Ms. Agaton said, speaking in the present tense as she remembered events that happened years ago. “There is a time that I am going to the manager to beg for some hours to work so I can send money to my family in the Philippines. They said, ‘No. We cannot give you more hours.’”

And, since the H-2B visa is job-specific, Ms. Agaton couldn’t legally work at a different hotel without a new visa. Her debt continued to accrue with each renewal. She explained that the broker charged her $750 to apply for her second visa, and $1,600 to apply for her third, which also involved a transfer to a new staffing agency.

Because of the fees and the potential for servitude, “We’re very concerned about any time any industry uses subcontracted labor brokers,” Mr. Myles of Polaris said.

Economic abuse, including debt bondage and withholding or confiscating payments, was the most common type of control reported in hotline cases, according to the Polaris report.

Ms. Agaton said that her third visa request was denied, but that her employer told her she could work for 240 days while appealing, something she said she now knows was a “trick.”

She was put to work for $7.50 an hour in the kitchen of a Louisiana casino, she said, and when she later inquired about her visa status, the broker threatened to have her deported.

Ms. Agaton said that she lived with five others in a remote two-bedroom apartment that the broker had arranged. They each had $300 a month deducted from their paychecks for rent, but learned from an eviction notice that the actual rent on the apartment was $630 a month, not the $1,800 they paid, she said.

For days at a time “the electricity was cut,” Ms. Agaton said. “We cannot cook, we had no lights, and we had no water.”

Eventually, new workers from overseas arrived, she said. That corresponds with a finding in the Polaris report, which said that 81 percent of the calls to the hotline were from foreign workers, largely Jamaicans, Indians and Filipinos. Ms. Agaton flew to New York, where she sought legal assistance and obtained a T visa for victims of human trafficking, she said.

As advocacy groups continue to draw attention to human trafficking, more states are getting involved in efforts to combat it. Lawmakers in New York and California are considering measures similar to one that took effect last year in Connecticut that requires lodging operators to train every employee to recognize potential victims of human trafficking.

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