Traffickers have become so adept at exploiting their victims in broad daylight that you may have purchased an item from their menu of goods from the comfort of your own home.
“Knocking at Your Door,” a new report released by nonprofit Polaris, details how little oversight there is in the door-to-door sales industry, which makes it a ripe environment for traffickers to lure in vulnerable victims. Between 2008 and this year, 419 reports of possible human trafficking cases involving traveling sales crews were made to two organizations that support this specific demographic.
That’s more than any other industry except domestic work.
While advertisements typically indicate that workers must be at least 18 years old, children are hardly spared from this industry.
A decade ago, the Child Labor Coalition estimated that more than 50,000 children were forced to work for groups that sell magazines, the Atlantic reported earlier this year. But Reid Maki, CLC coordinator, believes that number hasn’t budged much since.
"It’s become this little world of people operating in the shadows, and they’ve become very good at working the system," Maki told the news outlet. "There are so many areas of magazine crews operating just outside the law that seem unconnected, but they’re not. They keep one step ahead of the authorities."
But those figures likely belie the full picture considering that victims are often too fearful to come forward and report their traffickers.
The traveling sales industry is particularly appealing to traffickers because the crews rarely stay in one place for long and itinerant sales workers are considered independent contractors. That means they’re exempt from federal and state minimum wage requirements, overtime and other employment protections, according to the report.
And when businesses are flagged for questionable practices, they can change their name and register in another state with ease.
The bulk of such cases involve magazines sales, specifically.
Of the 357 cases that were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, 64 percent referenced magazine sales.
Many publishers aren’t even aware that such rings exist, and often don’t have the resources to monitor all of their selling agents.
The corrupt selling agents have developed a layered system that hooks vulnerable people and traps them with threats, force and manipulation.
These traffickers advertise the job as a way to earn quick cash, while also getting to travel extensively. The recruits are typically young, unemployed and come from low-income backgrounds.
“These crews are not at all the stereotypical image of what people think of when they think of trafficking,” Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, told the Guardian. “What is so unique is that these are U.S. citizens, male young adult victims -- and that is so far from the dominant narrative of what people think about when they think about trafficking.”
The reality of the situation hardly mirrors the ads’ glamorous descriptions.
Trafficked salespeople trek door-to-door from morning until night and get somewhere between $5 and $20 a day, which just covers meals and personal costs. The rest of the money they take in goes toward their “debt,” which includes housing and transportation.
Those who don’t abide by the rules are duly punished.
Rob, a victim who reported his case to the NHTRC, said if crew members complained or didn’t meet their daily quotas, their manager prohibited them from eating or made them sleep on the streets instead of in the hotel.
Traffickers keep their victims from escaping by threatening to abandon them in an unfamiliar place with no money or means to get to a safe location.
In addition to long hours and meager pay, these workers are also subjected to on-the-job hazards since the managers rarely perform background checks.
That means that young workers are often selling side-by-side with members that have records for violent crimes.
Another major risk magazine salespeople face is traveling with drivers who don’t have licenses.
This common offense came to a head in 1999 when seven magazine salespeople were killed and five seriously injured, in a crash in Janesville, Wisconsin. The accident happened after the unlicensed driver spotted a cop and switched seats with a licensed passenger while going 80 miles an hour, according to WMTV.
Phil Ellenbecker has been fighting for tighter regulations in the magazine sales industry since his daughter, 18-year-old Malinda Turvey was killed in the crash.
In 2009, Wisconsin passed “Malinda’s Act,” a law that requires employers who use traveling sales crews to register with the Department of Workforce Development. All vehicles have to pass safety codes and employers are obliged to pay their workers on a semi-monthly basis.
Wisconsin is still the only state that regulates traveling sales crews.
Such legislation is a step in the right direction, experts say, but the government, the publishing industry and consumers need to do more to protect exploited salespeople.
Polaris is calling on Congress to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to include door-to-door sales. It’s urging the publishing industry to develop more transparent supply chains and for customers to pledge to buy magazines or other goods from traveling salespeople only if they can prove they’re from a reputable organization.
Advocates remain hopeful that effective change will come now that consumers and government officials are more informed about the issue.
"The issue of human trafficking is receiving unprecedented levels of attention from federal and state legislators who are hungry to use the law as a vehicle to improve the situation," Myles told the Guardian. "We are hoping the report will become a catalyst that lights the spark."
Learn more about Polaris' work and how you can pledge to fight trafficking in the magazine sales industry here.