MAY 03, 2023 | BY TOMAS LARES
I’ve been on the frontlines of the fight against human trafficking in Florida for nearly two decades. In that time, our state has made strides to protect the most vulnerable, but one issue still desperately needs our attention: the use of hotels and motels for trafficking.
As founder and president of Orlando-based United Abolitionists to Stop Human Trafficking, I know the lives that are at stake. Since 2018, I have been advocating to hold the lodging industry’s bad actors accountable for turning a blind eye to the exploitation of individuals staying at their establishments in Florida.I first became aware of this despicable practice at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa in 2009, five years after I began advocating for victims in Central Florida. It was in Tampa that the FBI and other key stakeholders conducted the nation’s first human trafficking outreach. At this outreach, our law enforcement partners verified that traffickers were using hotels and motels to bring individuals victimized by human trafficking for those who want to buy them for a night or longer.
Since that time, I have been involved in educating the hospitality and tourism industry on how to identify and report human trafficking.
I was delighted in 2018 when Florida Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat, proposed a bill allowing victims of human trafficking to sue hotels and motels that ignored the exploitation of innocent children, women and men at their establishments. Unfortunately, the bill died. It was revised in the next legislative session in 2019, but the ability for victims to sue was not included. Instead, the bill that passed, HB 851, required the training of specified hotel staff and other professions.
I had the privilege of being involved in creating the training, contracted by Pasco First, for what the state would require. Now the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking, a nonprofit organization created by the Florida Legislature, facilitates this one-hour training.
The problem is that many hotels did not comply with the law and were never fined as the law stated would happen. According to a November investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, more than 14,000 citations were issued to 6,669 lodging establishments since the original law went into effect in 2019. Each violation carried an up to $2,000-per-day fine, with the money supposed to benefit a support organization for human trafficking survivors. However, no fines were ever issued.
This year, Florida Republicans Taylor Yarkosky of Lake County and Toby Overdorf of Martin County proposed HB 7045, which would have allowed victims of human trafficking to sue hotels and motels as well as other businesses, such as adult theaters, where trafficking takes place. Unfortunately, the bill was revised to exclude hotels and motels.
We have heard from dozens of survivors over the years about how they were trafficked in lodging establishments. Dropping hotels and motels from HB 7045 is completely unacceptable as there has been bipartisan support in the various committees this session to bring accountability to these bad actors. Protecting Florida’s families, tourists and community at large should be a priority.
The majority of mainstream hotel chains are already doing the right thing by creating policies and procedures, instituting required training for employees and putting up signage. They would also be protected from frivolous litigation under HB 7045.
It’s time to stand up for those who are victimized daily by human trafficking in Florida. It’s time to be on the right side of justice!
Tomas J. Lares is founder and president of United Abolitionists to Stop Human Trafficking, based in Orlando.
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