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Blame publishers, not young salespeople

By Earlene Williams
Last Updated: Aug. 7, 1999

Parent Watch is a non-profit clearinghouse for information on child and youth labor abuse. This agency has monitored the door-to-door magazine sales industry for almost two decades and reported its findings to Congress.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into the door-to-door magazine sales industry is probably the best coverage I've seen in 10 years. However, there are aspects of the story that must be clarified.

Lurid details of death and mayhem on the crews, sometimes by salespeople, were spelled out in the Journal Sentinel stories in shocking detail, and this certainly identifies the scope of the problem. However, lurid details do not accurately describe the average youth on a crew. It is important to consider who these other youths are, or they may not get the help they need.

A senior researcher at New York University School of Social Work studying the lives of magazine salespeople found that the majority of them come from lower-middle-class, small-town homes. The opportunity to travel was strongly appealing for them. It did not find that the majority of them are "troubled" or runaways or had previous bad histories of any kind.

Parent Watch has found, after interviewing youths from many different companies over the years, that when youths take these jobs, they think they are in some way working as agents for reputable publishers because publisher names are prominent in the recruitment interview.

They then find that they have entered a murky netherworld where their freedom of movement is restricted and their wages are kept from them.

There is much the average young salesperson does not know when she accepts employment on a crew. Most important, she does not know that the magazine sales crew environment is a crossroads for the innocent and the criminal to meet. She quickly learns that managers have the upper hand on the road (some of them have dubious pasts of their own), and that she is potentially in harm's way.

Through negligence in hiring, managers' recruitment sweeps sometimes pick up truly dangerous individuals, who then commit acts that put their crew mates or customers at risk and surface in newspapers all over the country.

Abusive treatment of kids is guaranteed because clearinghouses, who may consider managers to be franchisees, split the managers' take from the kids' sales, or charge a percentage of each sale they clear to the publisher. The manager is rewarded for extracting his pound of flesh.

Now that a balanced picture of who crew salespeople are is on the table, what about the remedy?

A ban on the use of minors is insufficient to address this problem. Hiring of minors will effectively cease, but the horrific abuses of older youths will continue. In fact, the majority of injuries and deaths cited over the past 10 years did not involve minors.

Vehicle licenses and safety issues are likewise insufficient outside of a major statute that regulates all safety issues for salespeople of all ages.

Citations of chief officers of clearinghouses would need to be combined with disclosure requirements beyond the owner level in each township so principals can be found once they have left a given jurisdiction. Efforts to legislate this would be resisted by the industry's trade group, the National Field Selling Association.

Oversight by a federal agency is meaningless if the agency would need to run willy-nilly after individual complaints. The magazine industry will not monitor its own because it has been there, and done that, back in the old days of Central Registry - an agency within the Magazine Publishers Association that exercised considerable watchdog muscle in the late '60s. Publishers will no longer monitor the door-to-door sales industry because of concerns about antitrust suits from the sales crew operators.

Here is what Parent Watch suggests: The state remedy for this situation is new legislation that requires identification of all owners and management to government when they enter the state, plus registration of itinerary, permits for each salesperson and truth in hiring.

The federal remedy of choice for this situation is a new migrant worker law modeled on the farm workers labor law that will give these young people recourse through legal process. This would cover issues of health and safety, unlawful imprisonment, employee status as opposed to outside sales, and minimum wage.

Now, what about the publishers? Well, ask yourself, where does the money ultimately go?

The New York Times reported last week that the Senate has voted unanimously to curtail fraudulent practices by magazine sweepstakes companies. As this issue becomes legislated and certain magazine publishers' readership drops as a result, further pressure may come to bear on itinerant youth crews to make up the difference. Things could get really rough for the kids who make door-to-door sales. The publishers are the hub in the wheel that gives momentum to the whole enterprise.

One wonders how far things have to go before publishers are willing to give up this dirty dollar.

Earlene Williams is the director of Parent Watch. This is in response to the Journal Sentinel's recent investigation.

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