human trafficking
  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year
  • Civil human trafficking lawsuits more than doubled from 2018 to 2019
  • Any business with a federal contract for more than $500,000 in goods or services is required to have a plan in place to prevent human trafficking

Human trafficking is often referred to as modern-day slavery. It occurs when a criminal third party exploits any man, woman or child for labor or sex, for profit or for gain. Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world.1 And it happens more often than you’d think. In 2019, 11,500 cases of human trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, of which 8,248 involved sex trafficking and 1,236 involved labor trafficking.2

 Trafficking is a hidden crime, because issues such as language barriers, fear of their traffickers or fear of law enforcement prevent victims from getting the help they need. In many cases, victims are lured with false promises of financial or emotional security before being coerced into commercial sex acts or labor. Human traffickers then use violence, threats or other forms of manipulation to maintain control over their victims.3

 It’s critical for businesses to educate their employees on human trafficking, training them on what to look for and how to report suspicious activity. Beyond the moral obligation to protect victims, there are a number of liability concerns for employers who fail to implement the appropriate protocols to prevent human trafficking at their place of business. This article will provide a general overview of human trafficking, applicable legislation and penalties related to human trafficking, and ways operations can help those who need it the most.

Human trafficking methods and the importance of prevention

Human trafficking is a criminal act that exploits men, women and children for labor or sex. Typically, traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control and manipulate their victims. For instance, criminals may isolate victims from familiar surroundings, give false promises of profit or threaten harm.4

 While human trafficking is complex and every situation is unique, it does follow patterns and is usually categorized as sex or labor trafficking:

Sex trafficking

Occurs when a criminal third party uses force, fraud or coercion to compel an individual to engage in a commercial sex act (e.g., prostitution or pornography in exchange for money, drugs or shelter) against their will. Any person under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex acts is a victim of human trafficking whether force, fraud or coercion are used or not.5

 Labor trafficking

Occurs when a criminal third party uses force, fraud or coercion to compel an individual to provide labor or services. Often, labor trafficking involves work that might otherwise be legal if the worker was performing it voluntarily, for lawful wages and under safe and lawful conditions. Common examples of labor trafficking include forcing individuals to work as domestic servants or coercing individuals to harvest crops through violence.6

 While there are obvious societal benefits when it comes to preventing human trafficking, many organizations are unaware that it could happen in their supply chain or at their business itself. However, human trafficking can occur under the guise of any legal business or in a variety of inconspicuous venues.

Businesses that wrongfully believe that human trafficking can’t or doesn’t affect them not only endanger the lives of victims, but also open themselves up to potential liability concerns. Notably, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which was originally passed in 2000 and expanded in 2003 via the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), broadened criminal penalties and created civil penalties for those engaging in all forms of human trafficking. Since 2000, the TVPA has been reauthorized by Congress nine times, most recently in 2019.7

 The TVPRA provides victims of trafficking with a private right of action to sue businesses for their part in allowing human trafficking to occur on their premises, even if the organization didn’t have any knowledge it was taking place. These lawsuits are becoming increasingly common, as civil human trafficking lawsuits more than doubled from 2018 to 2019. In 2019 alone, at least 125 hospitality-related entities were sued in state and federal courts in connection with human trafficking.8

 Additionally, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) outlines specific rules for organizations that do business with the federal government. Essentially, any business with a federal contract for more than $500,000 in goods or services is required to have a plan in place to prevent human trafficking. These federal contractors also must, to the best of their knowledge, certify that members of their supply chain have not engaged in human trafficking activity.9 Violations of either of these requirements can result in the termination of the contract, debarment, False Claims Act liability and whistleblower claims.10

 In addition to the federal mandates, every state has enacted laws that establish criminal penalties for human traffickers.11 It’s important to note that these laws vary, meaning the definition of human trafficking and how courts interpret applicable laws and penalties for being involved in human trafficking will depend on where a business operates.11 Many states have enacted rules that businesses must follow in order to combat human trafficking. These rules include requirements related to training employees on how to identify and respond to human trafficking as well as reporting incidents.

At both the federal and state level, there are strict and specific guidelines on how cases are evaluated. If a business knew or should have known that human trafficking was occurring, it could be subject to legal repercussions. But even if they can financially recover from a claim, businesses involved in human trafficking cases may never earn back public trust. That’s why it’s crucial to educate yourself and your staff members on the characteristics of human trafficking.

Common myths surrounding human trafficking and how to spot it

Given the hidden nature of human trafficking, there are several misconceptions surrounding it. These misconceptions prevent businesses and their employees from understanding and spotting human trafficking in the workplace. As such, it’s crucial to understand common human trafficking myths:

  1. Human trafficking does not occur in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 17,500 persons are trafficked into the United States every year.12 Human trafficking is not limited to one geographic area and can occur in cities, suburbs and even rural areas across the nation.13

  2. Human trafficking victims in the United States are typically from another country. Human trafficking victims can be of any age, race, sex, gender or nationality. Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking. However, some populations are more vulnerable than others, including those experiencing:14

    • A recent migration or relocation
    • Substance abuse issues
    • Mental health concerns
    • Poverty
    • Family dysfunction
    • Homelessness
    • A lack of social support

  3. Human trafficking impacts relatively few industries. There’s a misconception that human trafficking happens only in illegal or underground industries. While particularly common at hotels, human trafficking cases have been reported in restaurants, construction sites and salons. Human trafficking can impact just about any industry.15

  4. Human trafficking victims will attempt to seek help when they’re in public. Victims may be afraid to seek help due to fear of retaliation from traffickers. In some cases, victims are manipulated to the point where they are unaware that they are under the control of traffickers and don’t feel they need help.13

  5. Traffickers target victims they don’t know. Victims of human trafficking can be targeted by anyone. In fact, perpetrators can span all racial, socioeconomic, ethnic and gender demographics. They may be family members, friends of their victims, gang members or intimate partners of the victims.16

Having a basic sense of these myths puts businesses and their employees in a better position to spot common indicators of human trafficking. This is particularly important when you consider that, even if an individual interacts with the victim daily, it’s easy for human trafficking to go unnoticed. While no single indicator necessarily constitutes proof of human trafficking, recognizing common red flags is a critical first step in identifying potential victims and criminals.17

Spotting human trafficking victims

    • The suspected victim appears nervous or fearful.
    • The suspected victim shows signs of malnourishment or poor hygiene. They may also show signs of physical abuse, restraint or confinement.
    • The suspected victim has few possessions of their own. In some cases, they may not have control over their own money or identification documents.
    • The suspected victim appears to be constantly monitored by the suspected trafficker.
    • The suspected victim avoids eye contact and interaction with others. They are often not permitted to speak on their own behalf. Or when the suspected victim speaks, their words may seem scripted.
    • The suspected victim is dressed inappropriately for their age or has lower-quality clothing compared to others in their party.
    • The suspected victim appears to be disoriented, confused, fearful, timid or submissive.

Spotting human trafficking perpetrators

    • There’s a tense or uneven power dynamic between the suspected victim and trafficker.
    • The suspected traffickers have no identification.
    • In some hospitality environments, the suspected trafficker may:
      • Pay for their stay with cash or a preloaded credit card
      • Leave their room infrequently, not at all, or at odd hours; this is becoming increasingly difficult to track during the COVID-19 pandemic, as workers are entering or monitoring rooms less often
      • Request room or housekeeping services but does not allow staff members to enter the room
      • Have a local address but stays at the facility frequently and for short periods of time
      • Have a minor present in their room, but no minor is registered there
      • Have a constant flow of people in and out of their room at all hours
    • The suspected trafficker is discovered to have unusual amounts of cash, sex paraphernalia, alcohol or illicit drugs, computers, cameras or cellphones.
    • The suspected trafficker is often seen exchanging money in hallways or common areas.

Source: Department of Homeland Security

Four ways to prevent human trafficking at your business

 While recognizing the misconceptions and signs of human trafficking is a great first step to preventing it, there are other policies and procedures to consider. Indicators of human trafficking may not be obvious. In addition, the presence or absence of human trafficking indicators does not necessarily constitute proof of criminal activity. However, the more informed you are, the more equipped you will be to intervene.

The following are some risk management strategies to keep in mind:

  1. Train your employees on human trafficking methods.

Your employees need to be trained on common indicators of human trafficking. They should be aware of your company’s commitment to preventing human trafficking and how to respond to suspicious activity. If an employee suspects human trafficking is occurring at your business, they should be instructed to18:

    • Avoid confronting the suspected trafficker directly or alerting a victim to their suspicions
    • Seek help from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) by calling 1-888-373-7888 or texting “HELP” or “INFO” to BeFree (233733); additionally, the Department of Homeland Security is a great resource, and employees should be directed to call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (347-2423) to report human trafficking concerns. These resources can provide employees with more nuanced instructions on how to respond to suspicions of human trafficking. In general, employees should call 911 only in emergency situations (e.g., they witness threats of violence, a physical assault, or an individual with emergency medical needs)
    • Notify management and security 
  1. Establish companywide policies to prevent human trafficking.

Businesses should have a policy in place that provides employees with a method for reporting suspicious activity. Above all, this policy should clearly communicate the business’s commitment to combating human trafficking and take employee training into account. Formal policies allow you to bring awareness to human trafficking while simultaneously eliminating guesswork for employees, ensuring that the proper response is taken in what are often time-sensitive human trafficking scenarios.

  1. Post signage in the workplace.

Posting signage regarding the common indicators of human trafficking and how to seek help not only raises awareness, but it may be required by certain state laws. When creating signage, make sure it includes key contact information from the NHTRC and how employees should respond to potential human trafficking situations. Additionally, signage should be posted in highly visible and impactful locations (e.g., common areas).

  1. Work with local law enforcement and human trafficking task forces.

Working alongside local law enforcement to prevent human trafficking is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to safeguarding victims. Building these relationships ensures that your business has clear contacts in place in the event of an emergency and can also help with continued education. Some businesses even invite law enforcement officials on-site to conduct refresher training on human trafficking indicators.

Human trafficking can affect anyone at any place of business, underscoring the importance of continued education. While preventing human trafficking should always be a top-of-mind concern for employers throughout the year, January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and a great time to examine your business’s risk management efforts. During this time, it’s important for employers to reaffirm their commitment to preventing human trafficking and remind employees of what’s at stake. Participating in National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month could involve: 

    • Holding refresher training on human trafficking concerns
    • Distributing internal materials (e.g., company policies) on human trafficking prevention
    • Working with local law enforcement officials to update existing human trafficking prevention policies
    • Reviewing applicable legal requirements alongside insurance and legal professionals
    • Visiting the Department of Homeland Security’s website on human trafficking
    • Visiting the United Nations’ website on human trafficking
    • Visiting the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website

Key Takeaways

  1. Human trafficking is often referred to as modern-day slavery. It occurs when a criminal third party exploits any man, woman or child for labor or sex, for profit or for gain.
  2. It’s critical for businesses to educate their employees on human trafficking, training them on what to look for and how to report suspicious activity.
  3. Beyond the moral obligation to protect victims, there are a number of liability concerns for employers who fail to implement the appropriate protocols to prevent human trafficking at their place of business.


1 “Bankrupt Slavery: Dismantling the Business of Human Trafficking,” (Jan. 7, 2017).
2 “Hotline Statistics,” (accessed Nov. 23, 2020).
3 “What Is Human Trafficking?” (accessed Nov. 23, 2020).
4 “Fact Sheet: Human Trafficking,” (Nov. 21, 2017).
5 “Sex Trafficking,” (accessed Nov. 24, 2020).
6 “Labor Trafficking,” (accessed Nov. 24, 2020).
7 “The 2019 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act: A Topical Summary and Analysis of Four Bills,” (Jan. 14, 2020).
8 “Human Trafficking Lawsuits and the Hotel Industry,” Emily Adams and Shubhra Mashelkar (Aug. 11, 2020).
9 “Policy & Legislation,” Nov. 20, 2020).
10 “Human Trafficking Compliance Arrives for Federal Contractors,” Jaclyn Jaeger,
11 “Human Trafficking State Laws,” (accessed Nov. 23, 2020).
12 “Human Trafficking,” (accessed Nov. 23, 2020).
13 “Myths and Misconceptions,” (accessed Nov. 20, 2020).
14 “Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature,” (PDF) (accessed Nov. 20, 2020).
15 “Common Myths and Misconceptions About Human Trafficking in the U.S., files/Common%20Myths%20 and%20Misconceptions.pdf (PDF) (accessed Nov. 23, 2020).
16 “Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls,” (PDF) (2014)
17 “Warning Signs of Human Trafficking,” (accessed Nov. 23, 2020).
18 “Report Trafficking,” (accessed Nov. 20, 2020).

Subscribe to our newsletter for timely content in your inbox