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General Information

History of Traveling Sales Crews

Traveling sales crews have been around since the Great Depression. During the depression, most traveling sales crew people were unemployed men who sold magazines. After World War II, the crews consisted mostly of war veterans who couldn’t find employment. Veterans with war injuries displayed their injuries to their customers, and made a sympathy pitch. Over time traveling crews were assembled to sell other products: vacuum cleaners, books, bibles, and household products.

Living and working conditions on the crews were always harsh, and often cruel. Crew members were desperate for the work, however, so rarely did anyone complain about the abuses.

Today the road crew industry is organized around a youthful labor force. The salespeople are usually between 17 and 24, although minors do end up on crews as well.
Many traveling sales crews are entrenched underground economies run by “lifers;” people with few skills who may never have worked at any other job in their lives.

In today’s traveling sales industry, young sales people are often subjected to physical and emotional abuse by their managers. Also, some of the dangerous individuals who are inevitably attracted to this mobile lifestyle, both managers and salespeople, are getting attention in the press due to the considerable harm they are inflicting on crew members as well as on their customers.

Over the past five years there have been more criminal events associated with traveling sales crews than ever before. This is mostly due to the casual hiring process. Many “new hires” are recruited over the telephone, sight unseen, with minimal or no background check. This practice compounds the crime problem when business is good and recruitment is up, which is the presently the case.

The sales crew industry is always busiest when the economy falters. More young people need jobs, and companies whose products sell well at the door increase their reliance on the crews in bad times to shore up their otherwise flagging sales.

Occasionally, over the years, the FTC has investigated road crew operations, and sometimes pressed cases that resulted in real change: the major outcome of their actions is the “three day cooling off rule” that applies to any product sold door-to-door. Nothing has been done about the labor abuse of the sales people, however, in spite of two congressional hearings to that effect in the 1980s. The field remains largely unregulated. This lack of regulation has allowed a labor and criminal horror story to develop that equals or surpasses the migrant farm worker issues of the 1960s.

On any given day, an estimated 50,000 young people are traversing the country, many of them working under substandard and dangerous conditions. Their lack of life experience makes it difficult for many of them to look after their own best interests.

Parent Watch exists on the belief that federal regulation of traveling sales crews will ultimately come to pass and that these young sales people will receive the labor protection they need.

Our efforts are directed toward getting this serious social and labor problem the attention it deserves.



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