By Stella Dawson
WASHINGTON, July 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Traveling sales crews hawking magazines and coupons door to door are a major form of labour trafficking in the United States, according to a report from the anti-slavery group Polaris.
Door-to-door sales came second only to domestic work for labour trafficking complaints received on its hotline between January 2008 and February 2015, Polaris said in a report 'Knocking at Your Door' released on Thursday.
"We see really egregious labour exploitation in this industry," said Jennifer Kimball, Polaris director of data analysis, in a telephone interview.
Recruiters lure vulnerable young people with promises of big sales commissions, fun and adventure joining groups that travel from town to town knocking on doors to sell magazine subscriptions or sometimes grocery discount coupons.
But all too often the hefty sales commissions evaporate once travel and lodging costs are deducted, leaving the recruits with $5-to-$20 a day, scarcely enough to buy food and necessities.
They frequently are jammed into one hotel room at night, or sleep in cars. Motivational sales meetings cap long days tramping through neighborhoods, and poor performers are ridiculed or worse, beaten and left on the roadside, the report said.
"What we are seeing across the country affects multiple victims. The types of abuse they face are abandonment with no means to get home, no access to food, physical and sexual assault," said Kimball.
The crew managers frequently pocket the profits and often use multiple shell companies to hide from investigators and muddy their links to the publishing industry, she said.
The report is based on the 419 people who contacted Polaris over the seven-year period for help. One-third of those reports were about children. The report captures only a slice of the traveling sales industry, but it represents a broader problem in an unregulated sector of the labour market, she said.
Traveling sales crew members are treated as independent contractors or outside sales workers, hence are exempt from federal labour protections on hours and wages. Polaris called for legislation to close this loophole.
Recruiters also exploit a student-visa program to recruit from places such as the Baltic states. Workers with limited English and few U.S. ties are vulnerable to extreme exploitation because their stay depends on remaining in that one job, she said.
Polaris has received about 19,000 complaints through its National Human Trafficking Hotline, emails and text messaging service since 2008. Of those, 3,787 were for labour trafficking in 20 different industries led by domestic work and then travelling sales. The vast bulk of reports were for sex trafficking.
(Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)
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