“These schemes are nothing short of theft of the labor and the wages of hundreds, if not thousands, of young people.”
– Robert Abrams, former Attorney General of New York.
Victims of human trafficking have been found in sales crews or peddling and begging rings, where they work long hours each day soliciting money or selling products such as magazine subscriptions, trinkets, or cleaning products.
The controller or manager confiscates all or most of the victim’s earnings and the victims may be dependent on the controller for transportation and housing. Begging and peddling rings may include U.S. citizens, immigrants, adults, or children.
Sales crews typically recruit U.S. citizen youth ages 18 to 25, sometimes younger, with promises of travel, a care-free life, and the ability to make a lot of money. A "crew" consists of an average of 3 to 40 youth, under the direction of a manager, who moves the crew from city to city every few weeks. Crew members receive a small daily stipend of $8 to $15 or less , to cover the cost of meals and personal items. Violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, pressure tactics, and abandonment in unfamiliar cities are common.
After graduating high school, a young man was approached by a recruiter who told him he could travel around the US and make $350 a week selling skincare products. The young man joined a crew traveling in a van around the Midwest. The crew leaders charged exorbitant fees for transportation, lodging, food, and set fines if they were late or failed to meet sales quotas. If a crew member failed to make the quota for several days, he or she was denied food, and sometimes abandoned without any money. After being assaulted by a crew leader, the young man decided that he needed to leave. He called a friend from a pay phone, who helped him contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. (NHTRC).
*Based on calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
When does it become trafficking?
Peddling and begging rings and sales crews become trafficking when the employer uses force, fraud and/or coercion to maintain control over the worker and to cause the worker to believe that he or she has no other choice but to stay and continue to work. Common means of control include:
Force – Isolation and removal from familiar surroundings; physical and sexual abuse; abandonment for non-compliance.
Fraud – False promises of an opportunity to travel the country and earn money quickly; misrepresentation the work, working conditions, wages, or immigration benefits; visa fraud.
Coercion – Elaborate systems of rewards and punishments; sales or begging quotas; verbal and psychological abuse; exploitation of a foreign national’s unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US; sexual harassment; threats of harm to the victim or victim’s family.
*The above list is not comprehensive or cumulative. One element of force, fraud or coercion may be present, or many..
Removal from Familiar Settings – Youth and young adults who sign-up for a salescrew job are quickly removed from familiar surroundings and are kept isolated from their social support network of friends and family. If a crewmember is non-compliant with crew rules or fails to make daily sales quotas, he or she risks being left behind by the crew in an unfamiliar city with no money to get home.
Targeted Recruitment from Economically Marginalized Populations – Begging and peddling rings often target immigrants who are vulnerable to exploitation due to language barriers and a lack of alternative job options. In one case, traffickers recruited deaf and mute Mexicans to sell $1 trinkets in New York City. Salescrews target youth and young adults, many with low levels of income and formal education. Often victims have a history of or are vulnerable to homelessness.
Lack of Labor Protections – Salescrews are structured so that crew members are classified as independent contractors, thus shielding the companies from regulation, taxes and liability. Furthermore, as outdoor sellers crew members are exempt from most federal and state minimum wage and overtime requirements. State level investigations and prosecutions are often hampered by the fact that crew members are rarely allowed to work in their home state, and the crews move frequently from state to state.
Salescrew operators are estimated to cumultatively earn $50 million annually. Crew members may take in as much as $100 per day, but are allotted barely enough to cover meals, usually $8 to $15 per day. They typically don’t have enough money to buy a bus ticket home.
For resources on human trafficking in salescrews, click here.