Business and Child Sex Trafficking, Where to Next?

Business and Child Sex Trafficking, Where to Next?

ECPAT-USA’s Comments on the U.S. National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct

By: Dr. Camelia Tepelus and Michelle Guelbart

On December 2016, as the country was initiating a transition between administrations, Keith Avila, an Uber driver in California saved a 16 year old teen runaway from becoming a victim of sex trafficking. Rescues like these are made possible because of growing awareness around the issue coupled with increased employee and contractor training to identify the signs of human trafficking by companies. Keith was trained, empowered and supported by Uber management to alert the appropriate authorities. Uber, Delta Air Lines, and many other American-based global companies are members of the internationally recognized Tourism Child Protection Code of Conduct (, an initiative managed in the United States by ECPAT-USA, joining advocates and businesses committed to prevent and actively combat trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

With over twenty years experience advocating for responsible business and child rights, we at ECPAT-USA know that businesses are in a critical strategic position to ensure that child rights are respected and protected. When the US government announced that it would develop the first U.S. National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct (NAP) we were eager to provide input to the federal government in early 2016 on how the strategy could address grave violations of child rights including sexual exploitation and trafficking. The strategy was released among the final initiatives of the Obama administration in December 2016 and describes governmental expectations and federal policies regarding the conduct of US corporations. The NAP aimed to be consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and is the outcome of a year-long multi-agency and multi-stakeholder national consultation.

Drawing from decades of partnership with businesses to prevent child sex trafficking, ECPAT-USA provided input into the NAP process from a business and child rights perspective. Our main recommendations for the NAP were – first, to make an explicit priority of protecting child rights in all business operations, both domestic and abroad; second -- to continue soliciting business input in the process; third – to recognize and award good practices; and finally, to continue to evaluate and monitor progress of the NAP itself. Dr. Tepelus and Ms. Guelbart compared the NAP to their earlier recommendations and provided input and feedback on where the US government can go from where we are today.


Recognition of the child exploitation and sex trafficking phenomenon, domestic and abroad

We are pleased to note that forced and child labor and human trafficking are important areas of concern in the NAP document. We are however concerned that the increasingly egregious phenomena of sexual exploitation of children on the Internet, or in the transportation, travel and hospitality sectors are not explicitly identified in the NAP. According to Thorn, a California-based group working on technology to fight the sexual exploitation of children online, 63% of underage sex trafficking victims said they had been advertised or sold online.

We further observed a tendency of the NAP to prioritize addressing negative business practices occurring abroad over domestic business conduct. In the case of child sex trafficking, despite the public perception that this is only a problem that happens abroad or to non-Americans in the United States, data shows that over 80% of all confirmed sex trafficking cases in the United States involve US citizens. Child victims of sexual exploitation in the United States are largely American and their traffickers are also US citizens. Domestic child sex trafficking is a reality that ECPAT-USA combats every day. The current Administration made a strong statement against human trafficking in March. In this context, we hope the Administration will continue elaborating on the existing NAP framework and issue a more detailed follow-up document over the next few years that holds US companies accountable for their role in combating child sex trafficking.


Systemic solutions to systemic problems

We are particularly pleased to note that the NAP refers to strengthening protections against trafficking in persons in federal contracts (Executive Order 13627), and for large contracts. It even requires additional due diligence practices in the form of requirements on companies to adhere to voluntary measures such as codes of conduct (notably for the Department of Defense and Department of State subcontractors).

The ECPAT Code provides a similar framework for the hospitality and travel sector, and we see increasing signs of interest in similar child-protective practices from related sectors including transportation, real estate, and companies operating in the new realm of the sharing economy.

To date, there are 47 travel companies and associations in the United States that are full partners of ECPAT-USA in implementing The Code. Should their businesses be used by traffickers to exploit children, The Code gives travel companies a clear, simple, yet comprehensive set of guidelines. Companies that join The Code commit to implement six voluntary steps, as follows: 1. To establish a policy and procedures against sexual exploitation of children. 2. To train employees on children's rights, on the prevention of sexual exploitation and how to report suspected cases. 3. To include a clause in contracts throughout the value chain stating a common repudiation and zero tolerance policy of sexual exploitation of children. 4. To provide information to travelers on children's rights, the prevention of sexual exploitation of children and how to report suspected cases. 5. To support, collaborate and engage stakeholders in the prevention of sexual exploitation of children. 6. To report annually on their implementation of Code related activities.

In November of 2016, ECPAT-USA partnered with Marriott International and the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), with input from Polaris Project, to revamp the only hospitality-training tool on child sex trafficking. ECPAT-USA worked with Marriott to broaden the training to include all forms of human trafficking (labor and sex trafficking) and to expand the training to be global in scope. The training is now offered complimentary to academic institutions and is available in 15 languages. Around 40% of all hotel properties in the U.S. currently have access to ECPAT-USA training.

In partnership with Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Carol Bellamy, Chair of ECPAT International’s Board of Trustees, ECPAT International launched the first Global Study on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT) in Washington DC. The study revealed that there is no typical profile for a child exploiter, and that exploiters can also be business travelers. It also found that the Internet and mobile technology has fueled SECTT and truck drivers and hotel properties are particularly prone to child exploitation. Corporate leader and ECPAT-USA honoree Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former chair and chief executive officer of Carlson, a global travel and hospitality company served on the study’s high-level taskforce. Prior to the Global Study launch, ECPAT-USA began working closely with the business travel community. ECPAT-USA partners with Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE), Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), and the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) to provide tools and resources to companies who want to train their business travelers to learn and respond to the signs of trafficking. Business travel companies are also requiring that hotels, airlines, and other travel suppliers have policies and training on the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Airline employees, including flight attendants, play a particularly important role in the fight against child sex trafficking, they are in a key position to identify and report suspicious activity. They are increasingly requesting training from their employers. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) joined flight attendants, ECPAT-USA, and federal law enforcement officers at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington DC to urge Congress to pass legislation that would help to combat human trafficking on commercial air flights. The bill, now passed into law as part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, requires airlines to train flight attendants to recognize and report suspected human trafficking to law enforcement.


Need for further business outreach

ECPAT-USA believes that a major oversight in the NAP is the insufficient explanation or plan for outreach to businesses, and the lack of frameworks for reporting or future monitoring. This concern is consistent across the board with corporate accountability advocates. In addition, there is fear that a new administration may depart from previous policies by removing even the modest federal human rights reporting requirements enacted during the past decade (for example the conflict mineral provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act).

We hope that the emergence of human trafficking on the agenda, most notably through the recent meeting with human trafficking advocacy organizations and the White House will not only focus on immigration and smuggling, but will be followed up by a comprehensive anti-trafficking framework that includes articulating cooperation and expectations from businesses.

Overall, ECPAT-USA notes that the US NAP issued in December 2016 provides a promising starting point from which to continue addressing responsible business conduct. But it is just that-- a start. We are emboldened to continue providing expertise and advice to US companies exercising due diligence to mitigate potential human rights risks and impacts, especially as they relate to child protection. We remain optimistic that American businesses will continue their leadership in the fight against the global human trafficking epidemic. Ride sharing drivers, flight attendants, hotel receptionists, business travel companies, and many other professionals across a wide range of business sectors can be agents of protection and valuable law enforcement partners in combating child sex trafficking, if provided with the appropriate tools and training.

We are hopeful that irrespective of the regulatory frameworks in place, voluntary corporate action such as travel companies signing the ECPAT Code will continue thriving with the full support of the government. As advocates for child protection, we will continue to work with all stakeholders – policy makers, business leaders and faith communities – to ensure that all children, in America and abroad are protected from sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Written by Camelia Tepelus, PhD (ECPAT-USA Advisor and Co-founder, and Michelle Guelbart, MSW (ECPAT-USA Director of Private Sector Engagement, ).



ECPAT-USA exists to create a world where no child is bought, sold, or used for sex. ECPAT-USA undertakes policy and legislative advocacy, private sector engagement, research, training, and youth empowerment as means to prevent the commercial sexual exploitation of children. We are the U.S. affiliate of ECPAT International is a network comprised of over 80 organizations, represented in 75 countries, all working towards the same mission.

The Code is an internationally accepted industry-driven corporate social responsibility framework that helps companies in the travel and tourism industry. The Code’s six guidelines require companies to put in place policies and programs to protect children from sexual exploitation and trafficking. For more information about The Code, click here.

To learn more about our work with private sector engagement, click here.

For a PDF of the input and recommendations click here.