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Port of Seattle: How to Stop the Invisible Problem of Human Trafficking

How One Educational Program is Fueling Change Across Sky and Sea

Overview

When you hear the word “innovation,” what comes to mind? Cutting-edge technology that will allow people to walk into fire. Products that ensure the betterment of an entire industry. We tend to pair ideas of innovation—products and services that revolutionize or change physical things—with solving visible problems.

But in some cases, it starts from within. We learned how one organization spurred innovation through communication, training, and technology to inspire their entire company to use a community-focused approach to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. This led us at Schwabe to consider change, growth, and revolution from an internal lens. We asked ourselves, “How else can we think about innovation?”

A common thread to innovators, we discovered, is people. It is organizations big and small putting knowledge and the ability to execute into the hands of their staff, vendors, and communities. We were inspired to hear what our client the Port of Seattle has been doing to combat the horrific and sometimes seemingly invisible problem of human trafficking.

We met with the Port of Seattle Commissioner Sam Cho and Operational Readiness Activation and Transition Manager Chad Aldridge to learn more about the Port’s program to lead the charge against human trafficking.

When and why did the Port start trainings to identify cases of human trafficking?

I have to start by giving a lot of credit to my predecessors: Former Port Commissioners Gayle Tarleton, who many years ago was the impetus for the program, and Courtney Gregoire, who put the foundational plan and program together before she left.

The Port is large, both geographically and in the number of people employed—between the airport and the seaport, we have over 2,000 employees and vendors. This puts us in a unique position to educate staff and work to put a stop to human trafficking.

In January 2018, we put in place a motion that directed staff to implement a comprehensive Port-wide anti-human-trafficking strategy. Then, in January 2020, we put in place an awareness training measure, which we currently use. Because human trafficking activities happen in different ways, based on the mode of transportation, we developed two programs: Flights to Freedom, which centers around aviation, and Ports to Freedom, with training focused on maritime transportation.

Please tell us a little bit about the start of this program and how you found the resources and partners to get it off the ground.

Chad: We started by putting out a request for proposal for a subject matter expert that could help us build a training program, bring in service providers, and engage local community experts. This facilitated our work with the nonprofit, BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking), which helped the Port put together a comprehensive strategy that hit three different lines of effort:

  • Internal Policies and Procedures
  • Public Awareness and Education
  • Community Partnership

Once that was established, we moved on to training. The key was to make this information easily digestible by a variety of people, such as vendors, contractors, the public that lives in and around our facilities, and of course, all of our staff. We focused on messaging points that were easily relatable and applicable to their position.

By having a local emphasis and using a variety of service providers and nonprofits, we were able to give all that had been trained the ability to assess potential conditions in the workplace. Working with BEST helped us bring together survivors, which were introduced from local community organizations such as Seattle Against Slavery and the Washington Anti-trafficking Network. Those experts were extremely valuable contributors to our training program.

Your training program is huge. In trying to educate so many vendors and employees, how did you make this happen for such a large group?

Well, we’ve designed a program that considers all job roles within the Port, to make sure we include those who may not typically have access to a computer. We’ve worked with supervisors and tenants to schedule trainings for individuals not typically connected to our systems.

The Port maintains a robust e-learning management system (“LMS”). That is how we get out our mandatory annual training, anything from workplace violence to sexual harassment prevention and equal opportunity training, so we really had a good platform to start. Part of the piece was selecting a vendor like BEST that had the technological ability to build a training and e-learning piece that could easily integrate into our system. A great thing about the LMS is that it allows us to not only reach all of our employees, but also to track two metrics: (1) how many have taken the training, and (2) when they took the training. 

One of the things we did that may be different from others, which Chad touched upon, is we went to the grassroots level, and talked to victims, as well as those directly involved in fighting the illegal trafficking business. We were very conscious of creating a program that was unique and tailored towards our Port, based on real-world experiences.

Feedback from our training was that it really opened a lot of peoples’ eyes to something they were not previously aware of. Many were surprised by the tactics used to traffic people illegally. Internet recruitment for “modeling agencies” or making family members force a relative to work and take all of their pay, are two that come to mind. By becoming aware of how trafficking happens, many more eyes can be on the lookout and report, which will hopefully lower the rate of the awful crime and eventually wipe it out.

What did the launch of the program look like, and what does it look like now that it’s live? 

Human Resources sent a notification that the training was coming online. They informed all employees that it would show up into their learning management system, and that they had until the end of July 2020 to complete the training.

Just like every government or public service organization comparable to ours, you have those employees and tradespeople that do not have regular interaction with or access to a computer. So, we facilitated in-person training for a number of Port employees to do during their shifts. According to our HR training management team, it  has gone really well.

As the commissioner stated, it really was a shock to a lot of our employees that trafficking is as prevalent as it is in our local area. In my opinion, when most people hear about human trafficking, they think it’s something that happens overseas, but when you start pointing out the different things that occur here within the continental United States, and how trafficking is significantly intertwined in the travel and transportation industry, they are forced to take a step back and come to terms that it’s happening right under our noses.

One of the things that has really pushed us at the Port is looking at everything through the lens of equity. For instance, in January, when we rolled out the program—and I don’t know if people who fly from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) might have seen signs at the airport that provide people who suspect trafficking with a number to call and report it—well, for the longest time the signs were in English. If you’re being trafficked into this country and you’re from a different country, what are the chances that you’re going to be able to read that in English? Chad and the public affairs team did an excellent job of having the signs translated into several languages, and those were just put up.

My vision for the second phase of this program is to make sure that all the stakeholders and tenants of the Port are involved. That means all our airport dining, retail tenants, and commercial vendors get training on human trafficking.

If you think about it, we’re talking about gate agents, flight attendants, janitorial staff, and baggage handlers. It’s crucial for everyone on Port staff to be trained, from the top down, across the supply chain, and from the sky (aviation) to the sea (maritime).

What we’re working on now is a natural second phase of the program. It is comparable to a LEED or B Corp certification, a type of ambassador-ship platform where we work with partners, stakeholders, and tenants, so they can sign a pledge that they’ve agreed to train-up a certain percentage of their workers. We will then recognize and award them for their efforts in halting human trafficking.

How involved was the Port police department in the creation of the program, or, if they weren’t involved, are they supporting it?

They were extremely instrumental in helping us build awareness around identifying the signs of human trafficking, as well as educating on how to report it.

In 2018, the police conducted an in-person survivor training, and then in 2019, the Port of Seattle police conducted a two-part e-learning course for all patrol officers of the police academy. When BEST came on board, the Port of Seattle police worked side-by-side with them to develop the police crisis response plan, which made sure police officers, Port staff, and their tenants and contractors respond to matters of human trafficking. The police aided in developing a list of protocols to draw upon when dealing with suspected cases of human trafficking.

The challenging thing about these cases is that you can’t track a negative. You can’t know the numbers of how much it has reduced or what we’ve stopped. If we knew, we’d stop them all, right?

What we do know is that in 2019, the state of Washington had the eighth highest call volume to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the country. In 2018, the state was the 13th highest, and in 2017, the 14th highest. So, we’re learning that this program is resulting in more calls to the hotline.

Knowing that you can’t track the negative and knowing that you do track the training, what other metrics do you use to show what is and isn’t working?

As far as efficacy is concerned, the Port isn’t the only entity that needs to work on human trafficking. We see ourselves as the gateway to the Pacific Northwest, but there is the Canadian border, and other airports close by, in Spokane, or up in Everett at Paine Field. It’s really difficult to see how effective we are and tease out which measures have made a difference.

As we keep this ball rolling and move on to phase two, our hope is that we will see fewer cases of human trafficking reported. Again, you never know if that’s indicative of human trafficking going down. Just because the numbers are going down, it doesn’t mean crimes are going down. The numbers only reflect what is reported.

What makes sense to track from a metrics and a benchmark level is what percentage of our employees are compliant in taking the training. The most we can do as an institution is to make sure that we all do our part. So that means even though we roll this out, what percentage of employees have actually taken the course? What percentage of our tenants have also had their employees taking the course? That’s how we can keep ourselves accountable to the program. In terms of the results—it’s really hard to say with any degree of accuracy that we have curbed human trafficking by “x” percent. It’s just a tough thing to do. I can’t think of any organization that can really claim to say: our efforts directly contributed to the decreasing of human trafficking.

Implementing a digital education program for over 2,000 employees and vendors, many of whom don’t use a standard computer in their daily jobs, can be quite a challenge. How do you think the Port can keep “innovating” from within and make a dent in a thing like human trafficking? 

It’s like a snowball where once you get to where the ball is moving and a certain number of people have awareness, there seems to be an appetite to help more people to educate themselves.

I think an e-learning program is one of the most efficient methods of tackling a complex issue like human trafficking, and I would urge anyone else who’s trying to do a large-scale educational program to try it this way. And then, work on hyper-focusing your program to your institution as much as possible.

Awareness of the activity itself is important, and an understanding of how the program works within the context of one’s work environment is even more important. For example, if you are a longshoreman or a dockworker and learn about how shipping containers may be utilized [in human trafficking operations], or if you are a flight attendant that’s trained to know what signs to look for in passengers, you can help identify trafficking in how it can occur in the realm of your job. 

If we can continue to make the training or awareness campaign as focused as possible, and center on the context of the work environment—that is key to making it effective towards stopping human trafficking.

Hats off to the Port of Seattle, which set up this training—the first proprietary anti-human-trafficking training developed by airport authority—to ensure that Port staff, and others who work at Port facilities, have the knowledge and resources to recognize and respond to instances of human trafficking.

Want to hear other inspiring stories of innovation? Learn how Schwabe’s clients are Innovating for Good as part of our Fueling Change 2.0 series.

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