Human Trafficking, Right In Front of You

We at Yobel are passionate about global justice issues, but we're also passionate about what happens in our own neighborhood. We often partner with incredible organizations like Restore Innocence and our local Human Trafficking Task Force because we see this as such an urgent and often overlooked need in our community. 

If you've looked into Human Trafficking in the states, you've probably read the stories by now of sexual exploitation of underaged kids, told they owe their pimps money and have to work it off by performing sex acts on strangers. They are told their loved ones will be killed if they tell anyone. They are beaten and given drugs so they don't try and escape. They can be found in massage parlors, in semi-trucks, or even in people's homes. (If this is news to you, a good place to start learning more is here.)

These are unspeakably terrible stories, but not what I am going to address in this blog. I recently re-encountered another common, more subtle form of trafficking. It feels common, sometimes annoying, and might be surprising to you: 

It might be the teens or young adults trying to sell you books, magazines, or other goods.

It often seems harmless. They knock on your door or approach you in a parking lot. They tell you that they are raising money for sports, a school trip, contest, or for a children's hospital. Sometimes these kids are working for legitimate companies, but sometimes, the real story is hard to believe. 

Different websites share harrowing tales of abuse, coercion, and lies. These teens and young adults join sales crews because they are promised high earnings and the ability to travel the country. For the first week or two, they do make some money. After that, if they aren't meeting their sales goals they are abused and/or verbally assaulted. They are crammed into sleazy, shady hotel rooms. They are given drugs. They aren't allowed to call home. 

Again, not every magazine salesman that comes to your door is being trafficked. There are occasionally legitimate and responsible sales groups. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a "Mag Crew" becomes human trafficking when:

...The employer uses force, fraud 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 elements of force, fraud, or coercion used in trafficking in sales crews include... Isolation and removal from familiar surroundings; physical and sexual abuse; abandonment for non-compliance; intentional dehydration and overexposure.... False promises of an opportunity to travel the country and earn money quickly; misrepresentation the work, working conditions, wages, or immigration benefits; visa fraud... Elaborate systems of rewards and punishments; threats of harm to the victim or victim’s family.

While most crew leaders will tell their employees that they can leave whenever they want, if the crew member decides to leave, at best they are dropped off in whatever random city they are in with only what is on them. 

In 2010, just before Christmas, my husband was at the laundromat getting things ready for our vacation to visit my family. He met a kid, around 19 years old, who was trying to stay warm and was asking for a little cash. My husband asked a little more about his story, and we were briefly introduced to the world of Mag Crew. He danced around questions concerning his time on the crew, but he told us he was "kicked out", they took his wallet, didn't let him get his bags from the hotel, and he was left on a street without a coat in the middle of Colorado winter. No money, no ID, no phone, no friends. Yes, he was "free to leave whenever", but it came with a price. 

The website has an archive of first hand stories from former crew members. For legal reasons I can't quote them here, but please go and read some for yourself. You will read stories of crew members overdosing, being beaten to near death, getting pregnant and not knowing the father, being afraid to leave. Former members plead with anyone considering joining or already a part of a crew to get out while they still can. 

The stories read surprisingly similar to many sex trafficking stories. The victims come from low-income, unsafe, vulnerable, or traumatic backgrounds. They are told they will make lots of money, make lots of friends, life will be improved. When they get there, payment structures they were told about are a lie. Physical, emotional, and mental abuse are rampant. Threats are an everyday occurrence. Management takes advantage of whomever they want. The food and housing they thought were covered are now being taken from their paycheck, so they are forever in the debt of their managers. 

What can you do?

Generally, this is a difficult situation to do anything about, and there are very little resources on how to handle it. People are constantly on the move, and they are always being watched and searched by their handlers. But, here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Ask the sales person if they have a solicitors permit. According to the BBB, solicitors need permits in order to sell door to door in many cities. This is a starting point to see if this is a legitimate company. 
  2. If the situation seems fishy, ask the potential victim a few more questions: Are you being paid Can you leave if you want to? Are you afraid? What are your living conditions? Have you been threatened? 
  3. Whether or not they answer the previous questions, if you are still suspicious, let the suspected victim know they don't have to do what they are doing. Tell them if they are being forced to work, are not being paid enough, are being lied to, are being abused or coerced, then they are technically being trafficked. Often they may not even realize it until someone else tells them.
  4. Give the suspected victim next steps. Keep phone numbers on hand for Human Trafficking resources and give it to them. Some people even give victims their business cards so the they can reach out to someone they have met if they are abandoned (ONLY do this if you feel comfortable).
    1. Colorado Human Trafficking Hotline 1-866-455-5075 
    2. National Hotline (multi-lingual) 1-888-3737-888 
    3. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 1-800-843-5678
    4. The National Runaway Switchboard 1-800-RUNAWAY
  5. Report your experience to the National Hotline. The victim may never report their experience. If we report what we see, more can be done about it. Funding cannot go to trafficking if there are no reports of it happening. 
  6. Spread the word. I wrote this article because I saw someone complain about an experience with a young door to door salesman on a local neighborhood website. It sounded exactly like this, so I shared with my neighbors, and now I'm sharing with you. Please share with people you know. 

Additional reading/resources:

Al Jazeera America article: “Generally, if [a worker has] been abandoned, we’ll do an assessment, but I’ve never seen anyone who’s been abandoned by their crew who wasn’t in an exploitative trafficking situation,” says Lara Powers, a program specialist at Polaris. “Abandonment is that last straw of noncompliance … and the threat of abandonment is a strong form of coercion we see on these crews.”

A Recent Huffington Post article: “What is so unique is that these are U.S. citizens, male young adult victims -- and that is so far from the dominant narrative of what people think about when they think about trafficking.” 

Great, in-depth article from The Atlantic: “I’ve been abandoned 11 times. But I keep going back. I’ve got to do something to support my kids, and this is fast, easy cash.”

New York Times article: “I know it sounds crazy,” Ms. Steele said. “But I believed my manager when he said he would never let that happen again, and I believed him when he said my mom had told him she didn’t care about me.”

24 Children Rescued from Human Trafficking Scheme

Watch this 2008 video from the NY Times that does a good job talking about the different sides of this experience: