Researchers estimate that there are 1.1m victims of human trafficking across Europe. According to the UN almost one-third of human trafficking victims globally are children. Cases of forced criminality, prostitution and labour are a major issue for the hospitality industry, as it’s thought that more than 93,000 sex slaves and 4,500 labour slaves are exploited in European hotels each year.
Hotels, motels, hostels and bed and breakfasts have long coordinated with organisations including the UNWTO World Tourism Network on Child Protection, Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) and the International Tourism Partnership (ITP) to address modern slavery and human trafficking. Organisations in the hospitality industry are running awareness campaigns, building toolkits, displaying signs and training staff on what to look for and how to respond – as well as coordinating with law enforcement and anti-trafficking organisations.
Yet reports of gang-related drug dealing and “pop-up brothels” in accommodation rented online have added a new dimension to these issues. Sharing economy platform Airbnb now has 7m listings in more than 100,000 cities, making it larger than the eight biggest hotel groups combined. As the company readies for its initial public offering (IPO) in 2020, the legal grey areas in which its hosts operate are escalating concerns about transparency and accountability – especially in relation to human trafficking and modern slavery.
Accountability on Airbnb
Airbnb’s position is that it has “no control over the conduct of hosts and disclaims all liability”. Hosts bear responsibility for abiding by the laws in their own countries, and by the standards set out by the company itself. But my own research into Airbnb has found that, in practice, the question of responsibility goes far beyond who is legally liable.
What’s more, some self-identified hosts on host forums appear confused regarding their obligation to adhere to – or their rights to ignore –compliance issues such as tax collection, guest accessibility and age discrimination, given that most are not licensed accommodation providers.
On Airbnb, it only takes a few clicks to make a booking, and the use of key lockboxes, smart locks and keypads has reduced the need for face-to-face interactions between hosts and guests. Airbnb’s former global head of trust and risk management, Nick Shapiro, explained that the company applies risk analysis by trawling through photos on the platform, to check for signs of exploitation. But it remains unclear how guests not on regulatory, terrorist or sanctions watch lists can be identified as risky, or at risk.
Background screening and risk analysis is only carried out in the US and, in general, Airbnb hosts receive no education on how to spot exploitation and trafficking. Indeed, on independent forums hosts display a variable degree of understanding regarding their responsibilities – and Airbnb’s – in relation to modern slavery and human trafficking.
In 2019, Airbnb joined a World Travel & Tourism Council task force on trafficking. Yet by and large, Airbnb does not coordinate with bodies such as ECPAT, join global campaigns or raise awareness among hosts or guests. There are calls for Airbnb to ensure that hosts around the world undertake training to recognise signs of children at risk, and report incidents to police.
Hiring practices within the Airbnb ecosystem can also result in exploitation. For example, property management companies often hire women of colour and migrant women to clean houses. Often, these women are vulnerable, earn a low income and lack labour rights – they tend not to be unionised, as trade unions are unwilling to support a model which can increase the overall cost of rents and eats into the number of full-time hospitality jobs.
While many businesses across the hospitality industry have made reforms and been involved in campaigns to identify practices that lead to exploitation, no official Airbnb global programme currently exists across all the countries it operates in.
The European Union has already demonstrated that it can push Airbnb for change in relation to consumer protections. And the company has shown that it can exercise control over hosts to meet regulations, by making bilateral agreements with tourism authorities to collect various taxes.
Meanwhile, other companies in the sharing economy are raising the bar: ride-sharing platforms Uber and Lyft recently announced that they would teach drivers how to spot traffickers and their victims in some regions. So there is clearly scope for action on the issues of trafficking, exploitation, slavery and discrimination, by platforms such as these.
The lead up to Airbnb’s IPO provides an opportunity to pressure-test the company’s resolve to increase its transparency and accountability throughout the 191 countries it operates in. Measures could include releasing registers of hosts to authorities, increasing transparency through annual reporting, signing the code of conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism and adding pictures of Airbnb properties to databases that help police track down traffickers.
It’s time for Airbnb to follow the hospitality sector, and take a more proactive stance against modern slavery and human trafficking.
Michael O'Regan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.