Human Trafficking and Meetings: Education at SMU International

Marriott International global director of social impact Tu Rinsche breaks down the hard truths surrounding human trafficking and the meetings industry.

Believe it or not, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world, affecting millions of victims and garnering approximately $150 billion in illegal profits annually, according to the International Labour Organization. And while there is no concrete data on the numbers of people trafficked in the United States alone, Polaris, an organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, estimates the number of sex and forced-labor victims to be in the hundreds of thousands. 

The numbers are significant, and not to be overlooked. With such a transient environment, after all, the travel and tourism industries have the potential of becoming a particular hotbed for activity. Where do meetings fit into this equation? 

SMU International Education: Human Trafficking

At Northstar Meeting Group's SMU International, taking place this week in New York City, Tu Rinsche, Marriott's global director of social impact, educated the audience on the scope of the human-trafficking problem and the industry's role in being part of the solution.  

“I love to travel and I feel lucky every day to be part of an industry that allows me to go to new places and have unique experiences around the world," Rinsche said, opening her informative seminar. "But not everyone travels for these positive reasons. I'm going to talk to you about an issue that is more pervasive than you'd probably think. It’s dark and troubling -- I'm talking about human trafficking." 

Human Trafficking by the Numbers

Rinsche outlined the frightening statistics that are unfolding around us: 

  • Human trafficking currently has more than 40 million people entrapped in some ongoing form of modern slavery.

  • There are two forms of human trafficking: sex trafficking and forced labor. Both typically involve a third party who benefits from forcing human beings to engage in acts against their will and/or without proper compensation, safety and protection. 

  • 1 in 4 of those being trafficked are children.
  • Human trafficking is taking place everywhere -- at the motel off the NJ Turnpike and at the 5-star hotel in the Upper East Side. "Most people believe that human trafficking doesn’t happen where they’re from; they think it only takes place in seedy buildings and impoverished communities," said Rinsche. "Not true. It happens every day, in every city, around every corner."
  • Oftentimes, those being trafficked know their trafficker. Their trafficker is more likely than not someone who had showed them love or affection in the past, said Risnche. 

"People don’t believe that human trafficking impacts them or that they can do anything about it. That’s not true," she added.

Risk Factors of Human Trafficking in the Meetings Industry

There are a number of risk factors that directly impact those working in the travel and hospitality industries. 

  1. Loss of reputation: "You wouldn’t want to do business with a company that’s known for human trafficking in their operations or supply chains," said Rinsche.
  2. Safety and security issues: "Say you're hosting an event at a property that is known for trafficking. When you have law enforcement show up at a property, that’s going to be intrusive to your business, your attendees and your safety and security measures," she added.
  3. Operational risks: "Imagine you're procuring a table made of exotic wood and law enforcement finds that the wood was created and imported via forced labor."

In U.S., law enforcement officials are beginning more and more to ask hotels to either post signage for awareness or train their employees on human trafficking and how to spot it. 

In fact, earlier this year, Marriott International had executives of several Manhattan properties come together to take part in an employee-training session on the issue, followed by a panel discussion with several aid organizations and a trafficking survivor, to discuss the progress that has been made.

It was one year ago that Marriott announced a partnership with ECPAT-USA, the country's leading anti-child-trafficking policy organization, by signing its Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct and committing to training its entire global workforce to be alert to the signs of human trafficking.

"We have now trained more than 500,000 Marriott associates around the globe," said Rinsche. "But because our goal is to achieve 100 percent training compliance, it is a work in progress. Whenever new staff come onboard, they have to be trained. It's sad, but it's a fact that hotels are being used for this horrible crime."

Rinsche said human trafficking training is broken down by department. For housekeeping, suspicious behavior could be a particular room requesting lots of towels or clean linens, or that the "Do Not Disturb" sign is up for long periods. Receptionists are trained to be aware of any guest who pays only cash for their room. For room service, rooms that demand a lot of alcohol or food, usually late at night, could denote suspicious activity. It's never one thing that stands out, but a lot of different nuances that stack up.

Marriott associates are also taught never to approach the person they think might be trafficked, because that could prove disastrous for them. Instead, employees must report any potential issue to management, which then determines the next step, such as whether local law enforcement should be brought in.

What Meeting Planners Can Do to Combat Human Trafficking

Rinsche highlighted four main things meeting planners and hoteliers can do immediately to fight the continuation and/or growth of human trafficking. 

"The first thing you can do is to be aware: Know what to look out for and continue to get educated on human trafficking and what it really means," she said. "Then, if you see something, say something. Report issues as soon as possible and make sure that you are following up and taking action accordingly." 

Rinsche also mentioned the importance of accountability and partnerships with businesses and organizations that continue to combat and raise awareness around human trafficking. "Look for signs of distress. There are a lot of different indicators around human trafficking, and it's a combination of different indicators that create a pretty unusual, telling narrative." 

Important Outlets

Human trafficking hotline: 1(888)373-7888

Text: “BeFree” (233733)

Live chat:

Tu Rinsche, SMU International education speaker and global director of social impact, Marriottt International Photo Credit: Travel Weekly

Tu Rinsche has more than 15 years of experience in developing unique and scalable social impact programs that address diverse societal challenges. Currently, she leads global business and human rights issues at Marriott International. As part of the Global Communications and Public Affairs Department, she serves as the company’s human-rights expert and co-chairs Marriott’s internal Human Rights Council.  

Since joining Marriott in 2016, Tu has pioneered a robust and holistic human-rights program that prioritizes human-trafficking awareness and accountability across business operations, and strategic partnerships with leading human-rights organizations. She also oversees social-impact partnerships for more than a dozen diverse brands, including the award-winning Ritz-Carlton citizenship program. Earlier in her career she led the Walt Disney Co.’s first Supply Chain Investment Program, which helps pilot or scale unique and innovative initiatives to address human-rights issues in global supply chains. Previously, she served as the expert on global forced-labor policy issues and programs for the State Department’s Human Rights Bureau (DRL).

Tu started her career in public service with the U.S. Peace Corps in Mauritania, where she developed and implemented locally relevant community-health programs supporting the national agenda. As a volunteer teacher with Amnesty International, she taught human rights in the D.C. public school system 20 years ago. She holds degrees in International Affairs from George Washington University and Columbia University. Originally from Vietnam, she currently resides in the Washington D.C. area.