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