It’s considered one of the most profitable transnational industries in the world, but it comes at the cost of human lives and suffering.
The international law enforcement community suspects millions of people are taken and subjected to forced labor and sex in countries around the world, but the crime of human trafficking is hard to prosecute because it is so hidden and its victims so controlled by fear, separation and language barriers.
While the main centers of human trafficking in the U.S. are port cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami, smaller towns become thruways and destinations for such activity. Cities like Allentown, Reading and Lancaster are not immune.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 199 human trafficking cases reported in Pennsylvania in 2018 alone, with countless more likely going unreported.
The crime is defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a form of modern-day slavery in which perpetrators use force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.
Activists say fighting human trafficking is just as important in the Greater Lehigh Valley as it is in the nation’s bigger cities and it’s why many local businesses – especially in the travel and tourism industry – have joined the fight against it.
Trans-Bridge Lines Inc. of Bethlehem is one of the front-line warriors in fighting human trafficking.
Jen Lechiski, communications manager for the bus line, said a bus or a bus station is often the first place such activity is spotted.
“A lot of it is prostitution …. And the pimp will use the bus. They put their person on the bus and they know they’ll come back because they’ve instilled such a sense of fear … making them feel there is no help,” Lechiski said.
Trans-Bridge has daily service to New York and Philadelphia. She said the bus line wants human traffickers to know its buses are no safe haven for their criminal enterprise.
All of its buses are marked with stickers for a program called BOTL – Busing on the Lookout – that warns traffickers that drivers and staff are trained to spot them. The stickers contain text and a toll-free number that victims can call for help or that others can use to report suspicious behavior.
“We hope that will scare off anyone who would be using buses for that,” Lechiski said.
In addition to the stickers, Lechiski said all new Trans-Bridge employees must be trained on how to spot and deal with suspected human trafficking.
Bus service employees are taught to look out for such things as a person who looks lost or disheveled, or has someone else pay for them, as the victims are often young.
Other red flags include a person with tattoos or other markings indicating some type of “ownership” and vehicles parked at stations with individuals inside who don’t get out but seem to be making sure someone is getting on a bus
Lechiski said all Trans-Bridge employees have a special text number they can use to report a suspected trafficking situation without having to confront the suspects directly.
“It’s better to report it and have it be nothing than to not say anything and it is something,” she said.
No Room at the Inn
Hotels around the country and in Pennsylvania are also joining the fight, according to John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association in Harrisburg.
“Hotels are a logical place to start,” he said. “It’s devastating and very few people understand and realize what’s going on. But it doesn’t matter if you’re in a five-star hotel in Lancaster or Allentown. It’s very under the radar. You just don’t know.”
The association provides educational training to member hotels on how to spot human trafficking activity, but he said many of the larger hotels have their own training.
The Hotel Bethlehem, an independent hotel, uses some of the training provided by the association and recently hired a new executive housekeeper who is planning on ramping up anti-trafficking training at the hotel, said its general manager, Dennis Costello.
“We’re going to make it a regular part of our culture,” Costello said.
Charles Reece, general manager of the Allentown Renaissance Hotel, which is under the Marriott brand, said the Marriott chain provide mandatory training for all of the hotel’s staff.
“We take that very seriously,” Reece said.
Costello and Reece both said that just because they are running higher-end hotels doesn’t mean they are immune to the problem.
“People think they’re going to be doing it in a limited-services hotel or a motel,” Reece said. But, he said, it can happen in upscale hotels too.
Costello said both front desk staff and room attendants are trained to look for signs of human trafficking. They include rooms where people come and go frequently; “Do not disturb” signs that never come down; rooms where staff are refused entry; items such as credit-card processors, multiple cell phones or sex paraphernalia; and individuals who appear dirty or dressed inappropriately or who seem to be controlled by another party.
Staff members can report any suspicions to Reece so he can contact the proper authorities.
“Fortunately, I’ve never received that phone call,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
For more information about how businesses can help prevent human trafficking check out the following web sites: