Door-to-door sales crews or indentured servants?

Van crash in Wisconsin prompts an investigation into conditions of the

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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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.

As a result, she's been running the New York-based Parent Watch since 1983, tracking the industry, helping families and law-enforcement agencies, and lobbying for federal legislation that will target the practice.

Crew managers control the books, deducting from salespeople's commissions for expenses for hotels, food, and illegal fines for things such as a bad attitude, Ms. Williams says.

Teams that do well can gross $50,000 a week, she adds, but the salespeople rarely see that money and are often told they have to work off debts.

"Many kids do leave, but the ones who stay are afraid to leave," she says. After seeing or experiencing abuse and humiliation, "they seem to lose the ability to look out for their own best interests."

If travel-sales recruiters work out of a hotel room, promise exciting travel, and say the job starts immediately, stay away, Williams advises, adding that she'll "take out a full-size ad in The New York Times the day one of those works out well for somebody."

The Wisconsin case illustrates how difficult it can be to hold companies accountable.

The Oklahoma Labor Department was not aware of the parent business, Subscriptions Plus, before the accident, but now has fined it for not carrying workers' compensation for 123 employees, including those in the van.

The owner argues that sales crews are independent contractors. Such claims do not always hold up in court, but many people who profit from the sales "have become very sophisticated at separating themselves out legally," Williams says.

And because the groups are so mobile, investigating abuses can be difficult.

"It's like a modern-day Oliver Twist story," says Trey Davis, an Oklahoma Labor Department spokesman. Twenty-seven salespeople not involved in the accident left the area quickly, before police were able to talk to them, he says.

Watchdogs and remedies

The National Field Selling Association holds its members to ethical guidelines and a rule that salespeople must be 18 or older. But it represents only a small portion of door-to-door sales agents and companies.

About 18,000 people contacted the Better Business Bureau to check out a door-to-door sales agent in 1997. And the National Child Labor Committee and several other groups plan to launch an educational campaign soon, Beyer says, to alert people to the magazine schemes and another trend in which young children are deceptively recruited to sell candy door-to-door in the evenings.

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