When people think of labor trafficking, it is often in the context of agricultural work. However, there are many different industries that depend on the labor of exploited adults and children. One such industry is door-to-door sales crews. Many people at some point in their lives have opened their front door to face a child or adult trying to sell them a product such as overpriced magazine subscriptions. The majority of people will politely say no thank you and close their doors without giving it a second thought. Most people would never suspect that the salesperson at their door could be a victim of exploitation and trafficking.
In an article published in The Atlantic entitled, “Trapped Into Selling Magazines Door-to-Door”, author Darlena Cunha tells the story of what happened when she chose not to close her front door on a woman trying to sell her magazine subscriptions. Upon taking a look at the young woman on her doorstep, she immediately noticed that something was not right. Cunha writes, “It was in the 30s outside, unseasonably cold for Florida, and the young woman… was wearing nothing but a light spring sweater, shivering and looking miserable. I invited her in”. The woman worked for a company called “Certified Management Incorporated”, who claims that it is “dedicated to helping youth and other troubled souls get off the streets by giving them the opportunity to sell subscriptions door-to-door for points while the company provided room, board, and food”. The workers, who are placed on “crews”, are transported all over the country to canvass neighborhoods, where they try to sell magazine subscriptions for upwards of “$75 to $150 apiece”. In Young’s case, she was told that if she did well, and earned 20,000 points, she could move up to a junior management position. At that point, she had earned only 13. And in many cases, if salespeople do not meet their goals in a given city, they are left behind, with no means of getting home. Cunha writes, “Young was hundreds of miles from home, and she worried that if she failed to deliver, she wouldn’t earn enough to make it back to her kids. ‘If you sell too low or you’re a troublemaker, they’ll leave you,’ she said. ‘And I ain’t got nothing’”.
Cunha also tells the story of Stephanie Dobbs, a single mother of three kids who worked with the company, “Young People Working, LLC”. The company had control over her every move, and kept her from her children for weeks at a time. “I talked to them on the phone every day,” she says, “but the crew don’t let me see them. Even when you have enough money to go, and you’ll be back in a week, they find some way to make you stay. That is, until they want you gone. Then they leave you stranded”. Dobbs states that while working for the company for three years, she had been left behind eleven times. At one point, “Dobbs says she was in a van crash that left her unable to walk for some months, and her crew left her, moving on to other states”. Unfortunately, stories like Dobbs’s and Young’s are not uncommon.
In the article “Hundreds of young people trafficked into door-to-door sales in the US” The Guardian reporter Harriet Grant tells the story of a young man named “Rob”, who found himself working for a door-to-door sales crew. Rob reported his story to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In his report, Rob “described walking from door to door for hours each day. If crew members complained or didn’t meet their daily quotas, they were prevented from eating or even made to sleep on the street instead of at a hotel. He wanted to leave but was far from home with no money”. Brad Miles, Chief Executive of the Polaris Project, explains why victims such as Rob have trouble finding help and resources. Miles notes that sales crew members do not fit the stereotypical image of trafficking victims. “What is so unique is that these are US citizens, male young adult victims – and that is so far from the dominant narrative of what people think about when they think about trafficking”, Miles states.
The Polaris Project’s website includes a section entitled “Knocking at Your Door: Trafficking on Sales Crews”. The information on their website reflects the experiences Dobbs, Young and Rob faced while working on a sales crew. It states, “Abusive managers use psychological manipulation, violence, sexual harassment or assault, and abandonment in unfamiliar cities to pressure victims into working harder and to intimidate those who wish to leave their situation”. Despite not being a well-known issue to the general public, the Polaris Project reports that “sales crews are the second most reported labor trafficking industry on the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and BeFree Textline”. The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website issues a similar warning regarding these sales crews, and the coercion used to recruit individuals into the business. Their report states:
“Sales crews typically recruit U.S. citizen youth ages 18 to 25, with promises of travel, a care-free life, and the ability to make a lot of money. A “crew” consists of an average of 3 to 40 youth, under the direction of a manager, who moves the crew from city to city every few weeks. Crewmembers receive a small daily stipend of $8 to $15 or less, to cover the cost of meals and personal items. Violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, pressure tactics, and abandonment in unfamiliar cities are common.”
Despite the belief that there is choice involved in working for sales crews, there is often a large element of manipulation that goes into recruiting and maintaining a work force. As the National Human Trafficking Hotline states, “sales crews become trafficking when the employer uses force, fraud or coercion to maintain control over the worker and to cause the worker to believe that he or she has no other choice but to stay and continue to work”. In addition, the workers often come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, leaving them with very few resources to leave. The vulnerability of these workers allows the companies to get away with extremely unethical practices. For example, since they are constantly moved from state to state, “the workers are not protected by most federal and state minimum wage requirements. Nor is the work subject to overtime limitations” (Grant). While there have been attempts to help these victims, it has proven extremely difficult to shut down these exploitative companies.
Attempts to Find Solutions
There have been attempts to introduce legislation to address the issue of labor exploitation on these sales crews. “In 1999, Senator Herbert Kohl from Wisconsin introduced the “Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act”, a piece of legislation that would have regulated the industry” (Cunha). However, the bill did not pass in the House. While the state of Wisconsin was successful in passing a law to regulate these sales crews, there has not been any success at the federal level. And despite the efforts of organizations such as the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), it has been extremely difficult to hold these sales companies accountable. “The problems are so disparate, crime takes place so quickly, and companies reinvent themselves so often that without a fully funded taskforce to monitor sales crews— which neither the Better Business Bureau, the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Justice, nor any other faction of the U.S. government has—there’s not much anyone can do” (Cunha).
In addition, many of these companies operate under so many different names, that it is incredibly difficult to even track them. Certified Management Inc., which is not even registered anywhere in the U.S., also goes by names such as “Certified Management Training”, and “Ultimate Unity” (Cunha). An internet search for Certified Management Inc. and Training yielded no relevant results. Ultimate Unity, however, led to a page on the Better Business Bureau’s website, which listed 13 complaints, and gave them an F rating, as well as a Yelp page with one, one-star review.
“Young People Working, LLC” also has an F rating on the BBB’s website, with over 131 complaints, most of which were from customers who never received the magazine subscriptions or merchandise they ordered. The BBB page also includes a “BBB Custom Alert” at the top of the page which states the following: “On September 4, 2015 the State of North Dakota, Office of Attorney General, Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division issued a Cease and Desist to Young People Working, LLC and Crystal Clark”.
As Cunha attempted to find contact information for Certified Management Inc., she discovered that they were linked with four other companies, none of which she was able to contact. She writes:
“These four companies collectively had at least 10 phone numbers listed for contact information. Of those, two were completely disconnected, two went to automated voicemail with no reference to the business, one was a fax machine, one led to a law firm, one led to a cremation service, one to a private residence which had no idea about the company, one led to what I can only assume was a crew driver, and one actually had a professional business phone tree, but no answer when I chose any of the options.”
The lack of contact information and the ability for these companies to change their names at any time means that they are extremely hard to keep track of, making it very difficult to hold them accountable. The inability of state and federal governments to take action against these companies means that unfortunately, sales crew employees will continue to be exploited.