This year’s Super Bowl, held on February 6, provided advocates with an opportunity to shine a spotlight on one of the darkest sides of major sporting events: the trafficking of sex workers. At an anti-trafficking event held in January, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott stated that “the Super Bowl is one of the biggest human trafficking events in the United States.”

When large numbers of people attend events like the Super Bowl, a correspondingly large number of sex workers reportedly come, or are brought to, the site of the event. Many of these workers may be underage and brought to the site against their will. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has estimated that more than 100,000 underage girls may be exploited for commercial sex in the United States each year.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Super Bowl, a wide variety of advocates sought to enlist the help of companies in addressing the problem. In a statement shortly before the game, Rev. David Schilling of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility observed that “shareholders are requesting that the travel and tourism industry in Texas play a vital role in addressing human trafficking in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.”

Hotels and airlines were the focus of much of the advocacy attention. The week before the Super Bowl, Airline Ambassadors International, a non-profit organization, organized a training at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for the employees of several major airlines that was intended to provide flight staff with information on how to identify, and help, children who might be trafficking victims.

The attention paid to the Super Bowl was not an isolated occurence. Earlier in 2010, in the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa, Christian Brothers Investment Services ("CBIS") produced a report evaluating the efforts of several major hotel chains to combat child sexual exploitation. The CBIS report highlighted The Code, a hospitality industry code of conduct intended to facilitate efforts to combat the sexual exploitation of children, and noted that only one major U.S. hotel chain - Carlson Companies (with brands including Radisson and Country Inns & Suites) has adopted The Code to date.

ECPAT-USA, a non-governmental organization, has identified four steps that hotels can take to help combat human trafficking. These steps were highlighted by CBIS in its advocacy efforts leading up to both the Super Bowl and the World Cup. Adopted from The Code, the steps include:

  • Adopting a corporate policy against sexual exploitation;
  • Training staff to be observant to potential victims and, should they observe anything suspicious, making them aware to whom they should report such incidents;
  • Building alliances with police, anti-trafficking organizations, and child welfare agencies; and
  • Providing information to guests regarding national laws, hotline numbers to report potential incidents, and the penalties imposed for trafficking and the sexual abuse of children, reinforcing the fact that it is not accepted by the hotel.

As companies seek to address stakeholder concerns about human trafficking, it is important to note that Congress is paying attention to role of the private sector in addressing the problem. In July 2010, the House of Representatives organized a hearing on human trafficking during which Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) declared that “[t]he airline and hotel industries should be on the front lines of the fight."

Human trafficking for sexual exploitation remains a problem that is often hidden from sight, especially in the United States, but the level of advocacy on this issue continues to increase. Companies, especially in the hospitality and transportation industries, are likely to face increasing pressure from stakeholders to play a role in addressing the problem.