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Are some hotels turning a blind eye to human trafficking?

11 April 2013
Are some hotels turning a blind eye to human trafficking?

The hospitality industry's workforce is hugely vulnerable to trafficking for forced labour, but neither operators nor government bodies are doing enough to counter it. Elly Earls reports

The hotel sector's business model leaves its workforce vulnerable to trafficking for forced labour. Many staff members, particularly in London, are employed through unregulated agencies that compete with each other on price, leading to huge potential for the exploitation of workers.

However, a lack of statistics on this issue has led to a situation where neither the Government nor operators within the hospitality sector are doing enough to prevent these practices.

"There's a false impression in the industry that there isn't a problem," said Neill Wilkins, programme support manager at the Institute for Business and Human Rights. "But it's simply because no one is looking. The minute anyone starts looking, they find it."

A BBC Newsnight investigation, which aired last year, for example, found that some migrant workers were paid as little as £15 for an eight-hour shift during the London Olympic Games.

"There's an awful lot of anecdotal evidence," Wilkins added. "We know it goes on in the hospitality industry."

What's more, Wilkins believes the operators know it is happening. "Hotels try to distance themselves from what's going on by saying they employ an agency and pay it x amount," he explained. "But they are well aware of how long it takes to clean a hotel bedroom and know that if a rate comes below a certain amount, something must be wrong."

The Home Office believes hotels need to change their recruitment practices and introduce a code of conduct to crack down on human trafficking. It recently called for hospitality businesses to sign a business charter, committing them to developing anti-human trafficking policies and strategies, including revised recruitment practices and proper supply chain checks.

But Wilkins believes the Government must enforce existing laws. Not only would this protect hotel workers and the reputation of the industry, it would also provide the level playing field necessary for hospitality businesses to compete fairly within the law.

"Currently those companies striving to do the right thing are being undercut by those operating illegally," he added.

While progress is likely to be slow, there are some glimmers of hope. The Metropolitan Police, for example, has endorsed the Staff Wanted Initiative and is increasingly focusing on human trafficking for forced labour.

"In London, we have a dedicated Human Trafficking Unit and also manage a freephone number [0800 783 2589] that allows victims or other third parties to report directly into us," said detective chief inspector Nick Sumner of the Specialist and Economic Crime Command.

"The other long term piece of work is using the media to sensitise the general public to the reality of modern day slavery, a term that makes people feel uncomfortable but is a reality that society has to come to terms with."

How to prevent exploitative practices

The Staff Wanted Initiative's Scrutinise - Engage - Ensure (SEE) formula aims to prevent exploitative practices within the hotel industry and focuses largely on the recruitment of agency staff. Here is what it advises:

â- Scrutinise - and monitor your relationships with staff and recruitment and employment agencies

â- Engage - with your workforce. Talking formally and informally with them can uncover whether there are any issues around potential exploitation.

â- Ensure - you provide a fit and proper workplace. Clear operations procedures provide a framework for your own staff and supervisors when dealing with agency workers.

Whitbread sets the standard

One hotel operator that is trying to do the right thing when it comes to combating trafficking for forced labour is Whitbread, which operates budget brand Premier Inn.
In a recent statement, the company said that more than 80% of all housekeeping services are provided by its in-house teams, but in those hotels where Whitbread does work with agencies, it sets rigorous standards that they must adhere to. These include agencies paying the national minimum wage, providing uniforms to staff and ensuring that pay is not linked to the provision of accommodation.

"If an agency fails to meet these standards, their contract is terminated," the statement concluded.

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