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Hundreds of young people are being abused and exploited within the travelling sales industry in the US. In a report published on Thursday, entitled Knocking at Your Door, the anti-trafficking charity Polaris describes how unemployed young people are targeted by recruiters who promise them an enjoyable job involving travel and high profits.
Once part of a travelling team selling goods door to door, however, they become vulnerable to serious abuse. Victims' earnings areoften confiscated, leaving them dependent on their manager for transport and accommodation. Workers who try to leave face being abandoned hundreds of miles from home.
Between January 2008 and February 2015, more than 400 reports of labour trafficking cases were made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Centre (NHTRC) hotline and special text service. That represents a higher reported level of exploitation than any other industry except domestic work.
The travelling sales industry has existed for decades in the US and involves teams of between 10 and 100 people travelling long distances, usually in vans driven by the workers themselves, to sell items such as magazines or cleaning products door to door. The recruitment process focuses on young people from what the report calls "economically disadvantaged" backgrounds. They are sought out on social media or at bus stops and fast food locations.
Moved frequently across state boundaries and often far from home, the workers are not protected by most federal and state minimum wage requirements. Nor is the work subject to overtime limitations. Bradley Miles, chief executive of Polaris, says sales team organizers actively recruit vulnerable young people.
"One of the common threads we see through all types of human trafficking is that it thrives on targeting vulnerability and this does the same," said Miles.
"But they create additional vulnerabilities by bringing people so far from home. The modus operandi is high-pressure recruitment: as soon as they say yes, they swiftly pick them up and drive them far away from any area where they have relationships or family. It's very conscious and pre-meditated and nefarious recruitment."
Miles says the threat of being left on the street with no way to get home is used to control other members of the team. "One of the major types of control and exploitation that happens is abandonment. You will see examples of a crew wanting to punish a worker and make an example out of them [in order] to have a chilling effect on all the other workers. They will abandon somebody without money or belongings, the van will just drive away. We get calls from survivors after they are abandoned."
Polaris has been running the NHTRC hotline since December 2007, and the BeFree Textline since March 2013. Both services allow people to anonymously report trafficking and exploitation across the US, or to reach help if they are being exploited themselves.
Rob (not his real name), a young man who was put in touch with the NHTRC helpline, described walking from door to door for hours each day. If crew members complained or didn't meet their daily quotas, they were prevented from eating or even made to sleep on the street instead of at a hotel. He wanted to leave but was far from home with no money.
The NHTRC helped Rob find a place to sleep and transport home. The local support service helped several other young men to escape from the sales crew, and police involvement eventually led to the manager's arrest.
The report said victims do not get proper support because they don't fit the pattern of those who usually suffer from workplace exploitation.
"These crews are not at all the stereotypical image of what people think of when they think of trafficking," explained Miles. "What is so unique is that these are US citizens, male young adult victims - and that is so far from the dominant narrative of what people think about when they think about trafficking." The Polaris report drew on information submitted to its own services as well as allegations about poor conditions contained in other open sources.
They also looked at complaints made on online forums and Facebook, where crew members described being subjected to force, fraud or coercion while working on travelling sales crews. Consumer organisations across the US, including the National Consumers League and Parent Watch, have all identified the industry as a hotbed of abusive practices. Miles said the problem is not yet properly recognised by legislators and police despite complaints against the industry stretching back to the 1970s. But he believes there are reasons to be optimistic that, after decades of inaction, US legislators will finally be driven to act. "The issue of human trafficking is receiving unprecedented levels of attention from federal and state legislators who are hungry to use the law as a vehicle to improve the situation," said Miles. We are hoping the report will become a catalyst that lights the spark."
The US travelling sales industry, involving teams of up to 100 people travelling long distances to sell products door to door, has existed for decades. Photograph: Alamy Hotline: how to report trafficking The National Human Trafficking Resource Centre hotline was established by Polaris in December 2007. It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for victims of trafficking and anyone concerned that trafficking may be taking place. Callers can speak to a trained expert - in English, Spanish or up to 250 other languages, through a translation service. For those who can't call the line due to safety fears, there is also a text number; sending the message "help" will trigger a response. Callers trapped in exploitative situations can be helped to escape if that is what they want.
The hotline has taken more than 80,000 phone calls since 2007 as well as several thousand online enquiries. About 40,000 of those who made contact were in a situation with some indicators of trafficking, some more severe than others. The most recent figures, up to March 2015, show that more then 5,000 led to 1,345 incidents of trafficking being reported. The most common form of exploitation reported is sex trafficking, with labour trafficking next.
Foreign migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and are targeted with information about the hotline. US citizens are also encouraged to call with fears or in order to get help. Workers in the travelling sales industry have called the line to report abusive managers and to get help escaping.