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CRE Is Ground Zero In The Fight Against Human Trafficking And Ignorance Is No Longer A Defense

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Human trafficking is a commercial real estate problem. 

Human traffickers, who are exploiting millions of victims globally for sex or labor, typically prey on individuals from the secrecy of hotels, strip malls, massage parlors and other commercial properties where landlords and property owners either miss the signs or ignore the problem.

CRE Is Ground Zero In The Fight Against Human Trafficking And Ignorance Is No Longer A Defense

Advocates across the country are trying to change this dynamic, taking down the crime by disrupting the crime scene and holding property owners or managers legally responsible. 

“Property owners and landlords are the key to ending storefront trafficking in Texas,” Children at Risk Senior Staff Attorney Jamey Caruthers said. 

Texas is a major hub of human trafficking — at any given time, 79,000 Texas minors are victims of sex trafficking, according to the Texas Attorney General’s office. The state is also at the front line of proposed legislation and lawsuits to hold commercial real estate landlords accountable for trafficking in their buildings.

“Trafficking occurs in cantinas, especially in Harris County [Houston], but to a lesser extent elsewhere as well, modeling studios, strip clubs and most prevalently in illicit massage businesses,” Caruthers said. 

An estimated 40.3 million people are trafficked globally, according to data from the International Labour Organization cited by anti-trafficking nonprofit group Polaris. Of those people, 81% are trapped in forced labor, and 75% are women and girls. 

“The average age for being forced into human trafficking is 15 years old,” said Amanda Gow, vice president of business development for Guardian Group, a national counter-trafficking organization. “This was never a choice [for the victim].”

CRE Is Ground Zero In The Fight Against Human Trafficking And Ignorance Is No Longer A Defense

Some traffickers push these enslaved victims into prostitution, while others create free or cheap labor networks for various industries.

The construction industry is a main landing pad for trafficked labor, with workers often misidentified as contract employees to hide the illegal labor component, according to a report compiled by Polaris. 

“Victims of labor trafficking may be forced to work in the construction industry, usually within small contracting businesses completing tasks such as roofing, carpentry, welding, electrical work, and masonry on both large commercial construction sites as well as in private homes,” Polaris wrote in its report, The Typology of Modern Day Slavery.  

Whatever the traffickers’ intentions may be, owners and managers of commercial buildings are now facing financial and reputational risk if trafficking occurs on their properties, as advocates and lawyers take aim at property owners. 

“What we know from data in the United States is that 80% of the time it is done at a hotel,” Gow said. “We are seeing more lawsuits brought across the country holding property owners liable for crimes committed on their properties.”

The West Coast-based Guardian Group is made up of former military members and law enforcement experts who spend their days collecting evidence and data online to aid law enforcement in the fight against sex exploitation and human slavery.

Gow sees commercial real estate as ground zero in the anti-trafficking battle since rapes or illicit activities promoted by traffickers mostly occur at commercial properties. Her group educates commercial property owners and landlords on how to detect and stop traffickers on-site. 

Doing nothing is simply not acceptable anymore, she said.  

“You can’t just turn a blind eye and say we didn’t know, because you have a duty of care here,” Gow said.

CRE Is Ground Zero In The Fight Against Human Trafficking And Ignorance Is No Longer A Defense
Highway 59 leading into Downtown Houston

The Lone Star State Gets Aggressive With Traffickers and Their Commercial Enablers

Texas led the nation in 2018 for having the highest number of active human trafficking cases in court — 74, the Human Trafficking Institute reported. Federal courts in Texas last year convicted 45 defendants in criminal human trafficking cases, making it No. 1 in the nation for convictions as well. 

While traffickers are the top criminal target in the Lone Star State, property owners are beginning to feel the heat as policymakers find ways to put them out of business or hold them accountable for giving traffickers cover. 

“There are over 700 illicit massage businesses in Texas, usually exploiting Asian women, though IMBs also traffic Latina, African American, Caucasian and others as well,” Caruthers said.

Organizations like Children at Risk want space providers to feel the pressure if they refuse to expel known traffickers. 

Texas Senate Bill 498, proposed in this year’s legislative session, took aim at building owners and landowners, Caruthers said. The bill didn’t pass before the session ended, but it made it through the Senate, and Caruthers said advocates and lawmakers will tee it up again for success next time. 

The bill would allow tenants inside strip malls or commercial properties to break their leases with cause if they reported trafficking activity at neighboring businesses to landlords and the landlords failed to respond or evict the offending tenant. 

“If no action was taken, the complainant tenant could walk away from its lease without penalty,” Caruthers said. “The landlord and property owner could sue the leaving tenant for breach of lease, if they believed the tenant’s belief was unreasonable, but under the bill the tenant’s belief would be given some deference in court, called a rebuttable presumption — in this case, of reasonableness.” 

Caruthers believes the bill would solve the difficult problem of traffickers closing up one shop after being evicted and then simply going down the street and signing another lease. 

“Unless landowners and property owners begin to perform some basic due diligence on their tenants and evict those they suspect of engaging in prostitution or trafficking, victims will continue to be exploited,” he said. “The sad fact is many property owners are ‘absentee’ and not even in Texas; their only concern is the prompt payment of rent. Others simply know, or suspect, and do not care.”

But not caring has its consequences, according to Houston attorney Annie McAdams with McAdams P.C. 

McAdams in 2018 launched comprehensive civil litigation against many of the nation's largest hotel chains. She also sued social media outlets and tech platforms like Facebook and Backpage.com for allowing their platforms to serve as conduits for trafficking activity. 

“What we are alleging is that when a business knows that there’s trafficking, and they are taking money for rooms and so forth, then they are responsible for facilitating trafficking in that regard,” McAdams said.

The majority of her cases against hotels are filed in Harris County, Texas, although McAdams has similar cases filed across the country and anticipates additional trafficking cases to be filed in Dallas-Fort Worth in the coming month. 

“Our case is going to be a case of first impression. This is really about changing the way a lot of these businesses are handling these types of situations. These are not cases where maybe somebody was raped or sexually assaulted in a room and there was no way for the hotel or business to know about it.”

McAdams said the facts uncovered show knowledge on the part of the facilities and an unwillingness in specific cases to intervene. 

“These are cases where there is undeniable evidence that these hotels facilitated this behavior and knew that it was going on — whether it was 40 people in one room throughout a two-day period or six girls who were recovered from one hotel in different rooms. We have a situation where a 14-year-old was moved freely from room to room. Situations where it was undeniable that there were signals something was going on.”

The lawsuits she initially filed were against every type of hotel brand, including Palace Inn, Hyatt Hotels Corp. and Marriott International.

The litigation has caused alarm in the hotel industry, McAdams said. Local hotel franchisees and property owners also were named in some of McAdams’ lawsuits.

Some defendants realized during litigation how much is required of them to discourage trafficking and that their insurance policies may not kick in to cover any losses sustained from settlements or judgments, McAdams said. 

Ttahere are already some takeaways on how hotels and commercial premises should operate in regards to trafficking training and prevention. 

“The best thing a hotel owner or premises owner can do is implement policies and procedures to report incidences of trafficking,” McAdams said. “But also be able to show how you are monitoring those protocols. It's not enough to say I have a policy or procedure, or I’m trusting this person to do it; you have to verify it yourself, because I think a jury is going to be a lot more sympathetic to a defendant who comes in with books and logs and shows a proactive application of these policies and procedures.”

“Right now, we are not seeing any of that, so definitely enforce these policies, show that they’re being successful, document your effort.” 

McAdams also recommends hotels and property owners review their insurance policies to see whether these types of lawsuits are covered. 

“A lot of what we are seeing is that these defendants thought they had coverage when, in fact, they did not, so I think it is: one, be proactive; and two, check your insurance policy,” she said. 

CRE Is Ground Zero In The Fight Against Human Trafficking And Ignorance Is No Longer A Defense

Not Taking Trafficking Seriously Is Bad For Business 

The threat of losing vendors, partners and clients is one way to compel commercial real estate owners and venue operators to conduct human trafficking training and implement steps to prevent it. 

Meeting Professionals International CEO Paul Van Deventer said ever since he heard a nun speak about the pains of human trafficking a few years ago, MPI has been devoted to using its website, magazine and outreach tools to educate meeting planners on human trafficking awareness and prevention. 

Van Deventer said his group is asking roughly 60,000 individuals in MPI’s event planning community to build awareness among themselves and their staff. 

“There are certain behaviors that become evident and that are consistent with an individual who might be getting trafficked,” he said. 

Common signs of human trafficking include an individual being unable to speak or interact with others directly, poor hygiene, or a lack of personal identification, cash or other belongings on the alleged victim, according to Polaris. Traffickers also may exercise undue influence over the person by controlling disbursement of their pay, being abusive to the worker and making them work without the proper equipment, without breaks or in unsafe conditions. Commercial property owners should look for signs of anxiety, fear and distress. 

Trafficking victims may also be unable to provide their personal address and seem unaware of where they are when speaking with other individuals. 

MPI is paying attention to the warning signs and encourages its event planners, who generally exercise a great deal of control over where meetings are held, to ensure chosen hotels or business partners are tackling the issues on-site.  

“The planners have a lot of leverage, they have a lot of buying power,” Van Deventer said. “So use that buying power to make sure the partners you are going to work with are also at the forefront of fighting human trafficking.”

Marriott International, which was named in McAdams' suits, has been taking steps to address trafficking for more than a decade.

The hotel giant trained more than 600,000 workers globally on how to recognize and respond to signs of human trafficking in the past few years. The company also collaborated with ECPAT-USA and Polaris to produce extensive training for the industry. 

Marriott has had a human rights policy since 2006 and Marriott International Social Impact Director Tu Rinsche said it prioritizes issues related to human trafficking in hospitality and trafficked forced labor, including those affecting construction sites, as part of its Serve 360 goals. 

“It impacts business directly, and it has impacted hotels directly,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are folks out there who want to exploit businesses for their own illicit activities, and if you open the newspaper, there will be stories of situations that are happening at hotels. So we know that it’s happening, however, we don’t know the prevalence, but we know there is a positive role that companies like ourselves can play to fight a really ugly issue like human trafficking.”

Rinsche said Marriott quickly confirmed the value of training its employees to fight human trafficking — a Marriott-trained hotel worker in New Orleans spotted a suspicious-looking person with a child at an area hotel not long after the employee went through trafficking training. The worker and the hotel’s intervention led authorities to a child in trouble. 

“They reported it and followed through and worked with law enforcement to correctly identify a missing child who would have probably been in a potential trafficking situation had they not intervened,” Rinsche said. 

Meeting Professionals International had a similar experience when one of its trainees noticed a woman being corralled toward a car in Seattle. The member reported the incident to authorities, and they were able to stop an instance of trafficking. 

While litigation and financial risk is definitely a consideration, those involved with anti-trafficking prevention say there is a greater mission to aim for. 

“I think there is a financial incentive, and there is a social incentive,” Van Deventer said. 

“Until recently, the industry or society turned a blind eye to human trafficking. Now with awareness building and it coming to the forefront  — and then with brands taking a lead and saying 'we are going to help build awareness and fight it' — they will have an advantage in the marketplace because whether it is planners, corporate travel managers or individuals who are traveling, they will start to see which organizations are taking the fight against human trafficking seriously.”