Training programmes are being launched in direct response to human trafficking and exploitation concerns in New Zealand.

But Kiwi anti-child sex trafficking group Ecpat Child Alert NZ says many here are "in denial" that trafficking exists.

The group is hitting a brick wall with its plans to introduce The Code, an initiative to provide awareness, tools and support to the tourism industry to prevent the sexual exploitation of children.

Despite international hotel chains such as Marriott International and transport company Uber in the United States having signed up for the initiative, Ecpat Child Alert NZ's emails to businesses in the industry here have been met with zero responses.

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Ecpat Child Alert NZ chief executive Warren Ferdinandus said sexual predators were targeting children and youth on the internet.

A survey by the group of 47 sex workers aged between 15 and 47 found the average age for first receiving payment for sexual acts was 14.5 years old.

Faces of human trafficking, Museum of Modern Day Slavery, Houston Texas. Photo / Lincoln Tan
Faces of human trafficking, Museum of Modern Day Slavery, Houston Texas. Photo / Lincoln Tan

"There is often an exchange of something happening... goods, money, affection," Ferdinandus said.

"There is definitely a shift from a physically trafficking to a digitally trafficking of children... we should keep in mind that grooming can also be a pretext to trafficking and exploitation."

Ferdinandus said the commercial sexual exploitation of children in tourism often took place in hotels and used other travel infrastructure like taxis and tour buses.

"That's why we believe it is important that we work with tourism and transport companies to keep our children safe," he said.

Ferdinandus, orginially from Sri Lanka, had himself been sexually abused as a child.

"We, among many, certainly believe that trafficking of children does happen in New Zealand," he added.

Police advise anyone who is concerned for their child's safety or believe they are victim of a crime, in person or online, to contact police.

Ferdinandus said attitudes in New Zealand to trafficking were "miles apart" from other western countries, such as Canada and the United States.

"There's almost like a sense of denial that it is happening, or even that it can happen in New Zealand," he said.

A Global Study on Sexual Exploitation launched by Ecpat on March 27 found the rise of budget travel and affordable accommodation enabled child sex offenders to move around more easily and have easy accessibility.

In the United States, the largest taxi company in Houston Texas, Yellow Cab, uses the collective power of its drivers to fight human trafficking and raise awareness.

Yellow Cab, the largest taxi company in Houston Texas joins the fight in human trafficking. Photo / Lincoln Tan
Yellow Cab, the largest taxi company in Houston Texas joins the fight in human trafficking. Photo / Lincoln Tan

Its fleet of taxis are fitted with billboards promoting the national trafficking hotline and cabbies are trained to spot signs of potential sex and labour trafficking.

General manager Melissa McGehee said the company works closely with the police and drivers are encouraged to report suspicious activity.

Uber, the app-based transport company, is also enlisting its drivers across America to fight against modern-day slavery by giving them tips on how to spot traffickers and their victims when they hail a car.

In Spring in a suburb in Houston, a mother revealed to the Herald how her daughter was forced to work as a prostitute in a motel.

Her daughter, 13 at the time, ran away after meeting people online and ended being coerced into providing sexual services.

The mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the family learned of her whereabouts and retrieved her from the motel after three weeks.

Julie Countiss, assistant country attorney in Harris County, speaking to journalists outside the motel where a 13-year-old girl was allegedly forced to work as a prostitute. Photo / Lincoln Tan
Julie Countiss, assistant country attorney in Harris County, speaking to journalists outside the motel where a 13-year-old girl was allegedly forced to work as a prostitute. Photo / Lincoln Tan

Ferdinandus believed this could have just as easily happened in New Zealand.

More than 8000 missing persons get reported in New Zealand every year, with about 95 per cent found within 14 days.

But more than 300 New Zealanders — many under the age of 16 — have been missing for more than a year.

A civil lawsuit has been launched against the motel by the state of Texas, but the motel denied all allegations and none of the allegations has been proven in court.

A Christchurch School of Medicine study that surveyed 773 sex workers in 2007 found 10 were under the age of 18, and 141 had started sex work before they turned 18.

Auckland University researcher Natalie Thorburn is writing a doctoral thesis on domestic sex trafficking in New Zealand.

"I found no evidence of trafficking within the formal sex industry in New Zealand, but did find many instances of informal, largely disorganised trafficking situations that were perpetrated by friends, relatives, and men posing as 'boyfriends' to young girls in New Zealand," Thorburn said.

"This represented a hidden street economy that did not appear to be part of the general sex work industry."

Thorburn said there were many diverging perspectives on what constituted trafficking, so getting a clear, shared definition across the sector and to the public was important.

She said it was also important to find ways to prevent and intervene in trafficking situations that were "hard-to-reach" such as "those that occur out of view and opportunistically for profit" by abusers.

Meanwhile, the Restaurant Association is conducting a survey among members to get their thoughts on exploitation in the hospitality industry here.

Some of the cases that have been reported in the media include restaurant workers being paid as low as $3-an-hour and being made to work long hours without breaks.

"We have seen some absolutely terrible cases...when businesses like those are prosecuted it really resonates through the whole industry because it affects us all in the reputation of the hospitality industry," said Marisa Bidois, the association's chief executive.

The association is planning to launch an accreditation programme, where employers and members are trained in employer relations and understanding of what their legal obligations are.

"The idea is that we will check on this annually," Bidois said.

"It is reassurance for business owners but its also reassurance for those who may be looking for work as well."