Michelle Guelbart, MSW

Director of Private Sector Engagement for ECPAT-USA

Michelle leads program development and strategy for ECPAT-USA’s private sector work. As Director of Private Sector Engagement she advises companies on corporate social responsibility efforts to protect children from trafficking. Michelle provides support and recommendations to ECPAT-USA partners including Carlson Companies, Delta Air Lines, Wyndham Worldwide, Sabre, and Hilton Worldwide. This includes expert consultation for corporate policy development, programs, training, and workshops.

When MeetGreen had a team training on human trafficking, it was a tough conversation to have about an even tougher issue. We knew, however, that our work on the road, in hotels and meeting venues gave us an opportunity to be part of the solution.

Our hero this month Michelle Guelbart, Director of Private Sector Engagement, ECPATUSA, has had those hard conversations daily for years and she is still as passionate and committed as the day I met her. That is a hero! In a recent interview, Michelle shared her insight.

Has your industry changed dramatically in the past five years?

At ECPAT-USA (Ending Child Slavery At The Souce), we’ve noticed that the travel and tourism industry has really stepped up and taken a stand to protect children from exploitation in the past five years. More companies than ever before have official policies against human trafficking and child exploitation. They also have resources available to ensure employees are able to do as much as they can to prevent and protect children from trafficking. It’s been incredible. In fact, in the past five years, we went from having under 5 partners to over 50– if that isn’t dramatic change then I do not know what is!

What changes do you anticipate in the next five years? Are there any trends that concern you?

The first 5 years were spent on strictly raising awareness about the issue as it relates to the travel industry. We are currently focused on continuing to get the word out but now we couple that with providing resources to interested parties. In the next five years, I anticipate that we will see more industries and companies that want to know what role they play in combatting human trafficking and child exploitation. One recent trend of note is the growing interest from travel management companies, corporate travel managers, and meetings planners that want to get involved and we are building robust resources to support this sector.

This interest is timely because business travel is an area of concern for ECPAT. ECPAT recently released a report called The Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism, which is the most thorough, up-to-date and authoritative look at the issue of sexual exploitation of children in years. The report highlighted the importance of business travelers in getting involved because business travel can increase the number of travelers in a region, which can create demand for human trafficking. Business travelers can potentially spot situations or they could be involved in the exploitation themselves. This is a huge risk area for the private sector but we are gratified to see that travel management companies and corporate travel managers are interested in additional resources.

As a non-profit organization, our biggest concern is always funding. We have seen such a huge boom in the interest from the private sector so we’re always trying to keep up. In response, we launched a program so that the private sector can philanthropically support our work in addition to developing policies in programs called Partners in Protection to help support our work.

Which stakeholders are the driving force in stopping human trafficking initiatives?

Stopping human trafficking requires true public private partnerships. We need governments to be involved in passing laws that prevent exploitation, protect victims, and offer resources to survivors; we need the private sector to step up and ensure they are assessing the effects they have on the issue, addressing those risks, and providing remedy when situations do occur; and we need non-government organizations (NGOs) to provide resources and hold both sectors accountable for their efforts.

Unfortunately, there is no one sector of the travel and tourism industry that is immune to being used by a trafficker or exploiter. Youth are strategically targeted and manipulated by pimps who use hotel rooms as venues to abuse children, knowing that systems are not in place to protect the victims. With the use of online classified ads, child trafficking is not only on the streets but also behind the closed doors of local hotel rooms. In addition, children are often transported from city to city via U.S. owned airlines and buses. Air travel is also a primary means of transportation for child sex tourists– individuals who travel overseas to sexually exploit local children.

Any company in the travel and tourism sector has an important role to play in fighting human trafficking and child exploitation. If a company joins ECPAT’s Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, which is a set of 6 guidelines travel companies implement to help them comprehensively address the issue, they develop an implementation plan for the 6 steps that is specific to their sector and company. Therefore, they can all be a driving force in stopping human trafficking.

And lastly, all travelers can be alert and aware of the indicators of human trafficking and child exploitation so that when they travel, they can report their suspicions to the hotel or airline they are traveling with. ECPAT-USA steps for travelers to use when they travel.

What is the biggest obstacle still to be overcome?

Our biggest obstacle is a huge one! We still need the travel industry to take human trafficking and child exploitation as seriously as risk management issues. Oftentimes companies look at human trafficking through (at worst) a philanthropic lens or (at best) a corporate social responsibility lens, both of which often take a back seat to safety, compliance, and risk management issues. This is our biggest obstacle because it impedes implementation of The Code and prevents human trafficking and child exploitation issues from being addressed throughout the entire company. We need the private sector to change the corporate social responsibility culture so that it is tied directly into compliance and risk assessments/management.

Compliance and risk issues are addressed all the way down the supply chain because companies feel they are legally obligated to address them instead of voluntarily addressing them because it is the right thing to do. If we overcame this obstacle, I think training and resources would be more readily available (and even required) by all employees working in travel and tourism.

How can we, as a community and individuals, get involved to make a difference?

Earlier in the interview, I mentioned that travelers can be alert and aware of indicators so they can report their suspicions. I highly recommend that everyone become a responsible traveler and become knowledgeable on the issue so they can actually make a difference in someone’s life.

Our organization also has a page on our website about how individuals can get involved. It gives a few options depending on the level of commitment a person wants to make: make a donation to support ECPAT-USA’s work, join the latest campaign, and travel with companies that have socially responsible policies. ECPAT-USA is also always looking for volunteers who can use their skills to move the cause forward- this can include creating marketing materials, hosting or promoting a fundraiser, or submitting content for our website.