More than a century after slavery was abolished, millions of people are still being forced to work against their will. Nearly 21 million people around the world — 5.5 million under the age of 18 — are being trafficked for sexual, occupational, and bodily labor, according to the International Labour Organization's 2012 Estimate of Forced Labour report.
According to the ILO’s report, 4.5 million of the enslaved workers are victims of forced sexual exploitation — more than 90 percent of them women and girls.
In the U.S., this is an issue that’s becoming highlighted more often in the media, and attacked more aggressively by law enforcement.
In late July, a collaborative effort between 47 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) divisions, more than 3,900 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped rescue 105 sexually exploited children and arrest 159 pimps. Known as "Operation Cross Country," the movement is apart of the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which has identified and recovered more than 2,700 sexually exploited children since 2003. The three-day nationwide sweep took place in 76 cities.
One of those working behind the scenes was Nix Conference & Meeting Management, a meeting planning firm based in St. Louis. Since 2012, the organization has been training hotel managers and their employees on ways to identify minor sex trafficking.
“[When] people who are not aware of [child sex trafficking] hear [about] it, you can literally see them take a step backwards,” said Molly Hackett, principal of Nix Conference & Meeting Management. “It’s so hard to wrap your head around it. It just sticks with you and you can’t let it go. You have to keep thinking about it. You try to find more information about it. Some of us having children, that affects who you are when you think about kids who are being picked up over the internet and they think they’re about to have this great life when really they’re about to be trafficked.”
Nix Conference & Meeting Management helped develop a Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct with End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT-USA). According to the company's website, meeting planners who adopt the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct agree to establish an internal social responsibility policy, implement an action plan with objectives and time frames, and report annually.
“We thought that there was so much more we could do as meeting planners,” Hackett said. “We travel internationally. We thought we could bring awareness to this topic and really talk about it everywhere we went. Since then, everywhere we travel we talk about it to sales people, general managers, and management teams while we’re on-site at their properties.”
In Spring 2014, Nix Conference & Meeting Management will launch the “Ignite: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking” conference to educate meeting planners, hotel management and business travelers on the lawless trade.
“The conference helps them educate their traveling employees [and] business partners to watch for the signs of this, know what to do when they see it, and how to effectively report it,” Hackett said. “The most effective training has been when people in the training sessions raise their hands and say, ‘this is what I’ve seen,’ and we’re like, ‘Okay, that can be a sign of someone being trafficked. These are the general steps. This is the law enforcement you call. These are the chain events that the management team has set up.’ We really give them tools to do something with that information. They don’t need to intervene themselves. They don’t have to go walk up to the door. They just need to notify the correct management, personnel and authorities.”
Hackett said a potential sign of minor sex trafficking at hotels is room service requests that seem too childlike for the adults traveling in and out. Other signs include minors that are sporting inappropriate makeup, provocative clothing unfit for their age, and appear uncomfortable with their surroundings at the establishment.
The illegal practice of sex trafficking generates up to $32 billion in annual profits, according to the National Association of Attorneys General. This makes it the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind illegal drug distribution and also the fastest growing.
The trafficking of minors sexually is at the cusp of the forbidden trade. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, at least 300,000 American children are sexually trafficked annually.
Informing residential establishments and business travelers of the minor sex trafficking trade isn’t a part of Nix Conference & Meeting Management’s daily stream of business. However, they desire to bring awareness to the issue and help lower its presence.
“It’s something that we feel pretty passionate about, and it’s relatively easy to bring into our regular business model," Hackett said. "It’s part of who we are now. We’ve been doing it a year and a half. I really think that corporations and individuals could diffuse so much about it without having to take too many dramatic steps to build awareness. The first step at combating anything [is] recognizing it’s a problem."
Since 1985, Nix Conference & Meeting Management has managed meetings, conferences, and trade shows on four continents and in 17 countries for associations, religious organizations, businesses and nonprofit organizations. The company books 21,000 room nights a year for clients at more than 50 hotels in the U. S. and internationally. To get additional information on the organization click here.