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Meetings Pros in Toronto Take on Human Trafficking

Toronto take on human trafficking

Many people know Toronto as a cosmopolitan city that is home to great theater, a sophisticated art scene and attractions such as the 1,815-foot-tall CN Tower. Nonetheless, the city faces a scourge that is present in many major cities: human trafficking.

A new, all-volunteer organization in Toronto called Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking (mpaht.com) is now taking on the issue. Made up of about 30 industry professionals, most of whom are meeting planners, the group is working to raise awareness of human trafficking among planners, hoteliers, restaurant owners and others involved in the field.

Ontario is considered a hub of human trafficking, according to its Ministry of Community and Social Services, with more than two-thirds of human trafficking cases in Canada originating there.

“For Canada, Toronto is the hub, mainly because it’s the largest city in Canada,” says Tania Ferlin (MPI Toronto Chapter), a corporate sales manager for Hyatt Regency and a committee member for Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking.

To change that, Sandy Biback, owner of Imagination+Meeting Planners Inc. in Toronto, founded Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking about a year ago. One of the group’s first steps was to hold an awareness-raising meeting in April 2017 called “Human Trafficking in My Backyard.” Attendees included planners, hoteliers and security teams from hotels.

“We expected 20 people—we had 40,” Biback says.

When the group held a similar meeting this year and projected 40 attendees, 91 showed up. Another fundraiser in March 2018 attracted about 70 people, she says.

One current focus for Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking is to raise awareness of the trafficking problem through questions asked during the RFP process for meetings. For instance, the group encourages meeting planners to ask properties if they train their teams to recognize signs of human trafficking. Not every property welcomes such inquiries.

“A lot don’t want to talk about it,” Biback says.

Her organization hopes to change that, however, so asking about human trafficking prevention has become as routine as inquiring about a venue’s environmentally sustainable practices, she says.

Although many people are not aware that human trafficking is taking place around Toronto, it is going on constantly, according to Biback.

“I live in downtown Toronto,” she says. “I guarantee it is happening around the corner from me.”

Many of the victims are local girls, she says. Traffickers make a lot of money by marketing them to men who want to buy sex.

“One pimp can make up to $250,000 per year per girl,” Biback says. “Most have a stable of 10 girls.”

Although trafficking often takes place under the radar and is under-reported by all accounts, public knowledge about it has increased in Ontario in recent years. Ontario launched its Strategy to End Human Trafficking in 2016 to increase awareness of the issue, providing $14 million in funding to 27 partners via its Community Supports Fund. The justice sector meanwhile passed the Anti-Human Trafficking Act in 2017 to increase protection for survivors of human trafficking and make it easier for victims to pursue compensation. The law also designated February 22 each year as Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Ontario.

Related Article: Inspiring Action Against Human Trafficking

Canada’s laws differ somewhat from those in the U.S. in that it is legal for someone to sell their sexual services but illegal to purchase them, Ferlin says. Police try to stop trafficking by going after pimps. In 2016, police charged 107 individuals in 68 trafficking cases in Canada, according to the U.S. Department of State, which publishes reports on trafficking in individual countries. (None of the cases were for labor trafficking.)

Meanwhile, there were ongoing prosecutions against 300 individuals, among them 34 suspected labor traffickers. There were 10 sex traffickers convicted in 2016, with sentences ranging from six months to nine-and-a-half years imprisonment.

In addition to its work in raising awareness, Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking is moving forward on plans to train personnel at small hotel groups to recognize the signs of human trafficking and deal with it when it exists. The group has partnered with the Shiva Foundation, a U.K.-based organization that has developed an online curriculum, to introduce the training in the meeting industry. Biback was in the midst of writing a proposal to introduce the program to a group of 13 hotels when she spoke at an MPI event in late April.

“What we’re saying is let one of us come into your hotel,” she says. “We’ll talk to your department heads.”

Training personnel at hotels to recognize sex trafficking is a first step, but Biback and her colleagues are working to educate the industry about other ways to prevent human trafficking, as well. Trafficking at hotels may also include labor trafficking, she points out. For instance, the workers involved in doing the landscaping work could be indentured—something the property needs to know, she points out.

“Are these migrant workers who are indebted, or are they properly paid?” she asks. “You need to find out.”

Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking is already seeing some results from its awareness raising.

“One member of our team just changed jobs,” Biback says. “One of the questions she asked in the interview was, ‘Will I be trained in what to look for in human trafficking?’ The HR person said, ‘I hope everyone starts asking what we are doing.’”

Related Article: Taking a Stand Against Human Trafficking

Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking is part of a community that has formed around fighting human trafficking in Ontario’s meeting industry. Timea Nagy, a trafficking survivor, recalls being held in a motel in the Greater Toronto area for three months and forced to work in the sex industry in 1998, after coming to Canada from Hungary to work as a nanny.

“The doors weren’t locked,” recalls Nagy, who was 20 years old at the time. “If I would have escaped, they said they would have killed my mother and brother in Hungary. I didn’t leave—I had nowhere to go.”

Eventually, though, she reached her breaking point.

“You are either going to die here, or die trying to escape,” Nagy says.

Not fluent in English, Nagy eventually escaped by pointing to the words in a dictionary to indicate her situation to workers at a strip club where she was forced to work and enlisting their help in getting away.

Years later, she became a human rights activist and founded Timea’s Cause, an organization in Cambridge, Ontario, focused on rehabilitating survivors and educating the community about human trafficking.

“The problem is if you have internet, hotels and highways, you have human trafficking,” Nagy says. “It’s not a matter of if—it’s a matter of where it is.”

Nagy finished drafting the Human Trafficking Manual for the Hospitality Industry in March. The 40-page guide (available at timeascause.com/manuals) addresses questions that frequently come up in the hotel and motel industry and offers tips to hospitality professionals on what to do—and not to do. Her organization has published other manuals for law enforcement, the real estate industry, service providers, financial institutions and parents. Funds from the sales of the manuals support Timea’s Cause, Nagy says.

“Our job as survivors is to lift the blanket and say, ‘This is what it looks like. When you recognize the signs, say something,’” Nagy says. “Call the cops.”

Hotels often unwittingly make it easy for traffickers to commit their crimes, according to Nagy.

“Traffickers move quickly, set up shop within a half hour and by the time the hotel realizes what is going on, they’re gone,” she says. “They’re only there for 12 hours.” 

Traffickers will often start advertising a girl on an illicit website even before they have checked into a hotel, Nagy says. Although the website Backpage was shut down, cutting off one popular place traffickers advertised girls, similar sites have sprung up in its place, she says.

Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage, pled guilty in April to conspiracy and money laundering charges connected to a state and federal investigation into the site, which ran ads for sex. He agreed to shut the site down in a deal with prosecutors. Prosecutors alleged the site generated about $500 million in prostitution-related income since it opened in 2004, using overseas accounts and cryptocurrencies.

By making it difficult for traffickers to use their premises to commit crimes, hotels and motels can help prevent trafficking, according to Nagy.

“The way to eradicate sex trafficking is to make the hotels aware and train them,” she says.

Some hotels along Highway 401 in London, Ontario, have already started sharing information about perpetrators and girls involved in trafficking on an informal level, exchanging information about known and suspected traffickers who have come to their premises through a database, Nagy says.

“As soon as they knew the girls were involved in sex trafficking, they just banned them,” she says.

Once traffickers have been banned, Nagy says, they generally leave.

“They don’t want to be seen,” she says. “They don’t want to be known. They will start avoiding the hotel.”

Nagy’s group is also training banks about their role in preventing trafficking, encouraging them to find out what the hotels they use are doing about it.

“The banks now, when they are trying to book hotels for events, ask the hotel if they have a policy against human trafficking,” she says. “If the hotel doesn’t, they don’t choose them for the next event.”

With more meeting planners and organizers keeping hospitality providers accountable for preventing trafficking in properties around the world, the days of looking the other way seem to be on the way out.

SIDEBAR

Joining the Fight

Visit www.mpiweb.org/blog to read more of our ongoing coverage about the fight against human trafficking.


About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt
Elaine Pofeldt

Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance journalist in the New York City area who contributes to publications from CNBC to Forbes and is the author of the upcoming book The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business.