Door-to-Door Sales Crews or Indentured Servants? Van Crash in Wisconsin Prompts an Investigation into Conditions of The

Article excerpt

It happens all the time. A knock on the door followed by a pitch from a young person who, for one good cause or another, is selling magazine subscriptions.

But before getting out the checkbook, consider this: You may be looking into the eyes of a modern-day indentured servant.

Oftentimes, kids who hawk magazines door-to-door are just taking part in a school project. But some industry watchers say that when young adults join traveling sales crews, they are sometimes cut off from family, forced to work long days without having control of earnings, and subjected to emotional or physical abuse. Touted as adventurous employment with sales of about $1 billion a year, it's an exploitation industry happening right under Americans' noses, critics say. These sales operations have come under renewed scrutiny since a March 25 van crash that killed seven youths and injured five others near Janesville, Wis. That group appears to fit the profile of traveling sales crews, which tend to recruit and travel in a wide range of states and have drivers with longstanding criminal or traffic offenses, says Dorianne Beyer, general counsel of the National Child Labor Committee in New York. Indeed, the college-age driver in the Wisconsin crash already had so many driving violations that his license wasn't valid in Wisconsin. But what was unusual, says Ms. Beyer, is that the accident included four minors - one of whom was killed. That brought the US Department of Labor and the FBI into an investigation that otherwise would involve only state and local agencies. The lure of money The desire to get rich quick may be part of the problem. Since the 1960s, there's been a shift toward a sense of entitlement to a rich, exciting lifestyle, says Robert Fitzpatrick, co-author of a book on multilevel marketing and pyramid schemes. People from every background flock to seminars where they are told they can start making $10,000 right away if they just have the right attitude. Despite today's prosperity, many people feel insecure and are "pretty open to a scheme that says, 'I'll deliver you,' " Mr. Fitzpatrick explains. Many groups promise fantasy-size profits and instead end up impoverishing people, experts say. They've also been criticized for imposing cult-like control over people's thoughts and behavior. When Earlene Williams tracked down her 18-year-old son after he joined a traveling crew, he agreed to go home only if she would promise to help the other kids involved. …


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