A few years ago, I got a call from the highest ranking legal official in the state of Georgia: the attorney general. That moment was a wake-up call. It was 2013, and the city of Atlanta was hosting the Final Four basketball tournament. The AG called to ask if the company that I worked for could help sponsor billboards that would be put up around the city as part of an anti-human trafficking campaign. He said this was important because sex trafficking spikes with big sporting events and with conventions. And the billboards would help to raise awareness.
Now, if I'm being honest with you, my first inclination was to politely decline.
Let's face it—there are thousands of things that corporate America could get involved in. Sex trafficking seemed a little messy. Little bit too difficult, something that is better left for someone else.
But then I started to understand and learn how big the problem really is. And that it's rampant in my company's home town.
I lived and worked in Atlanta for years. I practice law here. And yet, I had no idea that the birthplace of my children is among the most prevalent cities for sex trafficking in the US. At last report, Atlanta's illegal sex trade has generated up to 290 million dollars a year. That's more money that the city's illegal gun and drug trade combined.
So we stepped up and we helped with the billboards. But I couldn't help feeling like it wasn't enough. The parent in me, the mother in me needed to do more.
I started talking to people about this and inevitably, I was surprised, because the conversation would turn from curiosity: "Really? This happens here?" to empathy: "Wow, we've got to do something about that." To blame: "You're not telling me that every prostitute is a victim, are you? I mean, don't they know what they're getting into?"
I get it, I understand why people are confused. So, to be clear, the people that I'm talking about do not choose this life. They're forced, defrauded or coerced. That's actually the legal definition for human trafficking under federal law, for adults. Now, when it comes to kids, any minor under 18 that's transported, facilitated or used for commercial sex, is automatically a victim. Regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion is used. This crime knows no age, gender or socioeconomic barrier.
I'm talking about the 16-year-old girl that I met in Washington, DC. She had been trafficked from the time she was 14 until she was 16. She was a victim of the foster care system. And she told me she'd been sold up to five times a day. She didn't even know the term "human trafficking;" she thought that it was just a part of her life as a foster care kid.
Sex trafficking also shows up in affluent areas and gated communities. And men lure young girls into sex trafficking situations with promises of modeling contracts, cell phones. Sometimes they're just kidnapped right off the street. In the US, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 girls and boys are anticipated to be used for commercial sex trafficking every year. You heard that right—girls and boys. Worldwide, the International Labor Organization estimates that up to one million children a year are vulnerable for sex trafficking. Those numbers are huge. And so while the billboards are great for raising awareness generally, they're just not enough to put an end to this problem. I believe that if we're going to be serious about sex trafficking, we can't legislate or arrest our way out of modern-day slavery. If we really want to end sex trafficking in the US, we have to systematically educate and target demand. And I think the business community is in the perfect position to do just that.
So, sex trafficking is big business. And I'm proposing a business plan that starts with the customer. And in the sex trade, the customer is referred to as a John. He is the man that fuels the demand for sex trafficking. Johns do not fit into neat stereotypes. But there is one universal truth: no John, no buyer, no victim. So if we want to start to put a dent in sex trafficking, we have to get to John. And businesses can do that while he's at work.
There's an organization called Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, or BEST for short. And when they launched in 2012, they did a study of Seattle-based Johns. And you know what they found out? Johns are everyday guys, employed at local businesses. They range in age from 18 to 84. Johns are dads. Johns have admitted that they buy sex when they are traveling for business, when they're going to sporting events or when they're in the military. But here's the kicker. BEST study determined that web-based sex buying spikes at 2pm in the afternoon, which means that these Johns are likely buying sex in the middle of the workday.
I believe that there is a way to stop Johns in the middle of the workday from buying sex. And businesses can do it in three simple ways.
The first is with a policy. A policy that clearly says, the company prohibits sex-buying during work, with company resources or on company time. That's right. I'm saying that your handbook has to specifically give an example that says no sex-buying while you're traveling, at the international trade show, because that's where it's happening. Now, a policy is only as good as its enforcement and its communication. Several studies have indicated from Johns that the best way to deter them is public humiliation and embarrassment. So, businesses who catch Johns buying sex, using company-based equipment or company resources, but cut them a break or sweep it under the rug and don't fire them, are complicit in fueling demand.
Now, a policy is one of the best ways to start. The second way is educating the workforce. Businesses can go a long way in simply training their workforce about the signs and the red flags of human trafficking. This was my "aha!" moment for how our company could make a big difference. Our nation's highways, airports and truck stops are literally used as modern-day slave routes. Our company has more than 100,000 drivers all over the country, all over the world. And so it made perfect sense to train them to see the red flags. We don't want them jumping out there and doing things on their own, so we want them to call a phone number, the hotline, and let law enforcement intervene.
So to do this, we teamed up with an organization called Truckers Against Trafficking. This Colorado-based organization had web-based support and materials that we gave to our truck drivers that gave them exactly what they needed to spot the red flags. Like, hearing CB chatter on their radios about girls at nearby exits. Or, seeing underaged women emerging from vehicles in the truck stop parking lots. When we rolled out this training, a few brave drivers admitted they had seen these women, knocking on the cabs in the truck stops, looking for customers. Now, they said that they weren't buying. But they also didn't know enough to make a call. And that's what we want them to do.
TAT's organization—Truckers Against Trafficking—also emphasizes the need for men to talk to other men about web-based sex buying and not buying commercial sex. They feature men in uniform, proudly proclaiming why they don't buy. If we're going to see a cultural shift in this atrocity, we need men talking to other men about the underlying issues fueling demand. Because sometimes, Johns don't even know that they're purchasing girls who are enslaved, which brings me to my final way that businesses can help. Every business has a special resource or a secret sauce or resource that they can bring to fight human trafficking. For example, Visa, Master Card and American Express refuse to process transactions from backpage.com, an online sex site that sold commercial sex to the tune of nine million dollars a month. In April of 2018, backpage.com and affiliated websites were shut down, and the FBI seized all their assets.
Hiring survivors is another way that any company can help. Randstad, an organization that works with companies to find survivors who need good jobs, has an excellent program, called Hire Hope. We've used this program; we know that it works. In addition to training their flight attendants and their airline crew, Delta Air Lines also offers SkyMiles, through a program called SkyWish, to survivors to help them escape their traffickers and reunite with their families. There are thousands of things that businesses can do. They just have to decide what to do to join the fight.
No one can justify slavery today. But I believe it remains one of the greatest civil rights atrocities of our time. Fortunately, the business community is uniquely positioned to help train their employees, to enforce policies and to help use their special resources to fight human trafficking.
And what about you? What if you decided to learn the red flags? What if you decided to look at the signs that are all around you and make a call? There is no penalty for calling law enforcement when you see something that doesn't sit right. Together, we can all protect our children, we can educate the workforces around us and improve society, where we all live and work with John.