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Seattle Uber drivers train to recognize human trafficking

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Rideshares are among the most popular modes of travel these days. As it turns out, they’re also a favorite of human traffickers, prompting Uber to launch new training for drivers.

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Olivia Herring is a human trafficking victims advocate for the Seattle Police Department, and says the numbers in King County are staggering.

“In King County, it’s estimated that we have between 300 and 500 kids every year who are being trafficked, and then women in the sex trade, I believe, it’s estimated that we have between 2,000 and 3,000,” Herring said.

She took part in a new human trafficking awareness training for Uber drivers held in several cities Tuesday, including in Seattle.

That had Uber partnering up with national and local anti-human trafficking organizations like the Seattle-based Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), to come up with new training materials. The group focuses on getting businesses involved in the fight against human trafficking, and has already done extensive work with the hospitality industry in Washington state to help identify victims.

That was a no-brainer with many sex workers operating out of hotel rooms, but BEST’s Kevin Connely says rideshares were a less obvious industry to target, until recently.

“We’ve heard several reports from survivors that said they constantly utilize various ridesharing applications,” he noted.

On Tuesday, in honor World Day Against Trafficking in Persons day, Uber launched new tips for how to recognize human trafficking in its app both in the U.S. and Canada. It also held a handful of in-person training sessions with drivers.

At the Seattle training session, drivers were told what some of the biggest indicators are.

“Evidence of abuse, or violence, or just kind of uncertainty about where they are, those are some of the main indicators to look for,” Connely said.

Drivers at the training had plenty of their own examples of suspicious situations they’d encountered on the job.

“So they have experienced it, but a lot of them just didn’t know how to respond in the past,” Connely described. “But I’m really happy about this training today because a lot of the walked away saying, ‘Now I know what to do.'”

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Connely pointed out that there are other reasons drivers don’t get involved, oftentimes fearing the violence that walks hand-in-hand with the human trafficking crisis.

But during the training, drivers were told exactly how to handle things if they suspect there’s a victim or a trafficker involved in one of their trips. That includes asking a potential victim if they need help, so long as it is safe to do so, and if not, calling National Human Trafficking Hotline to report it. And if it looks like there could be immediate danger, go the local route and call 911.

Herring promised local law enforcement will respond and connect those victims with her, where she tries to figure out how they got into the sex trade, and what they need to get out.

She also says, in most cases, these girls and women are in survival mode.

“That could be an opioid addiction that’s driving that. That could be survival sex — needing to find a place to say that night, needing food, needing clothing, all of those things,” Herring said.

But she says traffickers also target their victim’s emotional needs. The hope with Tuesday’s training is that rideshare drivers can at least play a part in breaking that cycle, and getting these people to safety.

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