Human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery that involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or deception to use them for profit, is a pervasive problem. Globally, there are an estimated 24.9 million human trafficking victims, many of whom are children, being exploited for labor or sex.

As a former employee at American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) learned, simply being aware of the red flags to watch out for can be a successful preventive measure. Several years ago, she and some other colleagues in our Meetings & Events (M&E) division attended a conference in which one of the keynote speeches was about human trafficking. There, they learned the warning signs to be aware of, knowledge that soon came in handy.

The former employee was at the airport on her way home from the conference when she spotted what appeared to be a human trafficking incident unfolding before her very eyes. While in line at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint, she noticed a man with a girl who looked out of place. When the TSA agent asked her a question directly, the girl seemed not to comprehend and didn’t respond. She also was wearing clothing inappropriate for the time of year.

“Alarm bells were going off in her head. It just screamed to her what she had just learned at the conference,” said Mischelle Peterson, a senior account and operations manager with M&E who heard the account firsthand when the employee returned to the office.

Once she passed through the security checkpoint, she called the anti-human trafficking hotline she had taken note of at the conference. While we do not know the outcome of her deed – she had to get to her gate to board her flight – seeing how effective a bit of knowledge can be in potentially preventing a crime spurred some members of the Meetings & Events team to take further action. They took it upon themselves to educate others at Amex GBT about the signs to look for to identify human trafficking and what to do if they suspect such a crime.

We recently formalized this training program by launching a partnership with ECPAT, which upholds a code of conduct for the protection of children from sexual exploitation in travel and tourism. In partnership with ECPAT, we have committed to train 100% of our workforce by 2025. With January being National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we are kicking off our training this month, starting with the approximately 1,300 employees who comprise the Meetings & Events team.

Ties to travel

The travel and meetings and events industries are uniquely poised to address this abuse of human rights. Traffickers regularly rely on travel networks to operate, transporting victims across borders via planes, taxis, trains, and buses to evade detention by law enforcement. In addition, human trafficking is associated with major sporting events and conventions where there are lots of people, and sexual exploitation regularly occurs in hotels, from low-budget motels to luxury resorts.

While people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds in any region of the world can fall victim to this heinous crime, traffickers often prey on members of marginalized communities and those with heightened vulnerabilities. Human trafficking disproportionately affects women and children.

The red flags

Travelers unknowingly may be a bystander of human trafficking during their journeys. To help them understand what to be on the lookout for, we’ve compiled the following warning signs from leading anti-human trafficking sources:

  • A person who doesn’t know which country they are in or lacks knowledge of their whereabouts.
  • A person who allows others to speak for them when addressed directly.
  • A minor who’s unaccompanied or traveling with someone who is not a relative or guardian.
  • A person not in possession of their own passport/travel documents and has little or no personal belongings.
  • A person dressed inappropriately for their age/the weather.
  • A person who shows signs of neglect/abuse, such as bruises, cuts, burns, scars, or malnourishment.
  • A person who exhibits fear, anxiety, or nervousness and avoids eye contact.
  • Many male visitors coming and going from a hotel room.
  • An adult guarding the door of a hotel room.
  • A “Do Not Disturb” sign placed on the door for an unusually extended time.

If you suspect a human trafficking incident or encounter a situation of concern, for your own safety, never approach a suspect directly. Instead, report it to the authorities, file a complaint with the hotel, or call a confidential anti-human trafficking hotline.

Travelers can also help combat sex trafficking by uploading photos of their hotel rooms to Exchange Initiative’s TraffickCam app. Traffickers regularly post photographs of their victims in hotel rooms for online advertisements, and law enforcement officials can search TraffickCam’s database to aid their investigations.

Amex GBT is committed to helping to eradicate human trafficking. As part of our partnership with UNICEF USA, we support the organization’s global work to continue education in times of crisis, a key strategy for combatting child trafficking and other forms of exploitation and abuse. We are also a founding member of the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC’s) Human Trafficking Taskforce, the first industry-wide initiative to assert zero tolerance and share best practices to prevent modern slavery. We recently contributed to the WTTC’s report Preventing Human Trafficking: An Action Framework for the Travel and Tourism Sector, which focuses on four pillars that tackle the issue: awareness, education and training, advocacy, and support.

To learn more about the steps Amex GBT is taking to prevent and detect human trafficking in our supply chain, read our modern slavery statement.