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Youthful Peddlers Swindled


									4/29/2010                                             Youthful Peddlers Swindled
  Home >> In the News >> Youthful Peddlers Swindled

                                August 31, 2001

                                Youthful Peddlers Swindled
                                Modern-day Fagins hire children for grueling door-to-door
                                sales, then pay them little or nothing. Officials say the
                                labor law violators are hard to catch and prosecute.

                                By CARLA RIVERA, TIMES STAFF WRITER
                                                                                                   Yadira Rodriguez and
                                Thirteen-year-old Margarita Parra was looking to earn              Margarita Parra.
                                some spending money, and the flier she spotted on a                (LORI SHEPLER / Los Angeles
                                fence in her South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood                Times )
                                seemed to offer a fun way:

                                "TEEN JOBS. EARN UP TO $125 A WEEK AND MORE. PLUS! WIN PRIZES,
                                KNOTTS . . . ALL TRANSPORTATION PROVIDED."

                                She called the number and two days later a van belonging
                                to a group called Tomorrow's Future picked her up. She
                                spent the next two weeks knocking on doors in far-away
                                neighborhoods, urging residents to buy cookies and
                                candies at $6 a pop. Following a script from her bosses,
                                she told customers the money would help her stay away
                                from gangs and drugs and win her prizes. In the end, she
                                was paid nothing and there were no theme park trips. And
                                the money she took in flowed to a shadowy business, not
                                a nonprofit.

                                Margarita's story is a familiar one to officials trying to crack
                                down on a burgeoning child labor practice that they say
                                exploits youngsters, even exposing some to fatal
                                accidents. Government investigators contend that the
                                adult crew leaders and those who run the operations are            Juan Garcia, who helped
                                raking in as much as $1 billion annually in untaxed sales          start probe of a child labor
                                revenues nationally while many youngsters are left empty-          scam, works for UCLA
                                handed.                                                            program to teach young
                                                                                                   workers their rights.
                                An estimated 50,000 minors, some as young as 8, peddle             (KEN HIVELY / Los Angeles
                                goods on any given day on street corners, in front of              Times)

                                supermarkets and on front porches from coast to coast.

                                Many work for outfits that present themselves as charities when in fact they do not
                                have tax-exempt status and their proceeds do not support programs that help
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                          Of course, not every child selling on the street is working for a modern-day Fagin,
                          officials point out. Many are legitimately selling candy as volunteers for churches,
                          schools and charities.

                          But thousands of other children are exploited for their labor, working more hours
                          than allowed by law, being underpaid or not paid at all and working in unsupervised,
                          often dangerous conditions, prosecutors allege. The younger their age, the more
                          heartfelt their appeal to unwary consumers, they say.

                          "How many people think it's safe for their own kids to ring doorbells in strange
                          neighborhoods?" asked Darlene Adkins, who coordinates child labor issues as vice
                          president of the National Consumers League. "They're out late at night and in all
                          kinds of weather."

                          On many street corners, especially in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods
                          and around schools, fliers can be spotted advertising such work. They usually list
                          telephone numbers that invariably turn out to be pagers. They rarely mention a
                          business name.

                          "They are very difficult to deal with from an enforcement perspective; they're very
                          elusive," said Corlis Sellers, the U.S. Labor Department's national child labor
                          coordinator. "By the time we get a complaint or a sighting and send someone out,
                          [the operators are] usually gone."

                          To help improve enforcement, a national conference will convene next month in
                          Atlantic City to consider how federal and state authorities can better coordinate
                          regulation of labor laws, including door-to-door sales by children.

                          Margarita Parra, now 15, entered that world two years ago. During her first phone
                          conversation with recruiters, she was told the work would be a great way to get
                          involved in a nonprofit community group.

                          "They gave us a script to memorize that we were supposed to read to customers
                          and they said this was our training," said Margarita, who will be a sophomore this
                          fall at King/Drew High School and has been active in a government action against
                          Tomorrow's Future. "They said they would deduct $50 from our pay for training, but
                          they never explained anything to us."

                          According to her accounts, the van that picked her up carried five or six other
                          youngsters, some of whom had to pile into the back where there were no seat
                          belts. They were taken downtown and to neighborhoods in North Hollywood and the
                          San Fernando Valley where they had never been before.

                          Margarita worked from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. on school days and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
                          on weekends selling chocolates, fruit-flavored candy, Pokemon toys and cookies
                          with no adult supervision, no rest breaks, no food money. She was expected to ask
                          the strangers on whose doors she knocked for water and the use of their toilet.

                          If the children didn't sell enough, they were punished. One boy, she said, was made
                          to sit in the hot van all day.

                          "One time they left a girl [in a far-off neighborhood]. She was new and only sold one
                          item so they got upset. They kicked her off the van, gave her some change and told
                          her to go home. We had come on the freeway, so it was a pretty long way," she

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                          Margarita quit after two weeks. When she asked for her earnings--$1.50 for every
                          item she sold--she was told she'd be paid that night. She got nothing.

                          A few months later, Margarita and a friend mentioned their experiences to Juan
                          Garcia, 21, a youth organizer for the nonprofit group Concerned Citizens of South
                          Central Los Angeles. Garcia brought it to the attention of the state labor
                          commissioner's office, which filed a complaint on behalf of seven teenagers.

                          After nearly 18 months of investigation, two of the Tomorrow's Future employees
                          were tracked down. Twenty-year-old Orlando Sanabria, whom the youngsters
                          identified as one of the van drivers, pleaded no contest in December to a
                          misdemeanor charge of transporting a minor more than 10 miles from home
                          without a permit. Sanabria was fined $540 and placed on probation.

                          The operator, Jesse Banerjee, 31, was charged with 42 criminal counts of labor
                          code violations, including paying less than the minimum wage, failure to obtain
                          work permits or register with state labor authorities, and requiring the employees to
                          work excessive hours. Each misdemeanor count carries a maximum penalty of six
                          months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Banerjee disappeared before a court hearing
                          and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

                          State labor officials calculated that Tomorrow's Future owed the seven victims in
                          the lawsuit $5,579 in back wages.

                          Some proponents tout door-to-door sales as a good learning experience, especially
                          for youths living in poor areas, where job opportunities are limited.

                          But it often is difficult for young people and their parents to separate the legitimate
                          from the bogus.

                          Three Los Angeles high schools are trying to educate young workers about their
                          rights through a UCLA curriculum called the Labor Occupational Safety and Health
                          Young Worker Project. It covers such issues as safety, sexual harassment and
                          door-to-door sales, said Garcia, who works for the project.

                          California is one of 17 states that place some restrictions on peddling by youths.
                          Employers of minors engaged in door-to-door sales more than 10 miles from their
                          homes are supposed to register with the state labor commissioner. But according
                          to officials, not a single company holds a permit in the state. The one application
                          submitted was denied because of the criminal background of the applicant, said
                          Dean Fryer, a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations.

                          Those under 16 employed by for-profit businesses in California can sell door-to-
                          door only if they do so in pairs, are within sight or sound of an adult supervisor
                          every 15 minutes and are paid at least the minimum wage. Minors employed to sell
                          or deliver newspapers are exempt from such restrictions.

                          Part of the problem facing labor agencies is limited manpower for enforcement.
                          California's labor agency has about 100 field investigators, but none dedicated
                          exclusively to child labor problems.

                          Other states have banned such for-profit sales outright. Nevada last year outlawed
                          peddling by those under 16, but state law allows children to volunteer for nonprofit
                          groups such as the Girl Scouts.

                          Nevada authorities acted after several disturbing incidents, including the death of a
                          10-year-old candy vendor who was struck by a hit-and-run driver as he tried to
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4/29/2010                                    Youthful Peddlers Swindled
                          cross a street after 10 p.m. In another case, an adult crew leader driving a vanload
                          of children ran over and killed a security guard.

                          Federal Legislation Targets Con Artists

                          Missouri lawmakers last year introduced legislation that would have banned door-
                          to-door for-profit sales by anyone under 18. It failed, but backers hope to try again in
                          the next session.

                          Federal legislation introduced this year by two Democratic senators--Herbert Kohl
                          of Wisconsin and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts--would forbid overnight
                          sales trips for those under 18. It is before the Senate Committee on Health,
                          Education, Labor and Pensions.

                          That proposal stems from an accident two years ago in Wisconsin in which seven
                          members of a sales crew, including two 16-year-olds, were killed when the van in
                          which they were traveling crashed.

                          Documents disclosed that the crews typically made $15 for 12 hours of work. The
                          Wisconsin youths said they were choked for insubordination and fined for falling
                          asleep in the vans. Others told of being abandoned in strange towns if they talked
                          of quitting.

                          Florida authorities in the last two years broke up peddling groups in which the
                          operators had criminal histories of trafficking in drugs, procuring prostitutes, vehicle
                          thefts and drunk driving.

                          "These people are not there to facilitate the growth of kids, but to profit," said
                          Francisco Rivera, a child labor lawyer for the state of Florida.

                          Florida investigators obtained documents from one peddling operation indicating
                          that the operator was making between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, figures that
                          Rivera considers grossly understated.

                          Sales receipts from another group in Panama City, Fla., showed that it had links to
                          operations in Detroit, Chicago, Des Moines, Boston, Cincinnati, Albuquerque,
                          Milwaukee, San Bernardino and Moreno Valley, authorities said.

                          "Kids are being taught to be con artists; they know they're lying," Rivera added.

                          But the young people in the Los Angeles case say they signed on with good

                          Yadira Rodriguez was 17 and attending Fremont High School when she began
                          working for Tomorrow's Future, joining her then-15-year-old brother, Noe. She was
                          on school break and worked from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The crew leaders promised
                          free trips and prizes.

                          But Rodriguez was unsettled from the start.

                          "Almost every day I felt scared walking on the streets alone," Yadira, now 19, said.
                          She remembers that on occasion the kids would get 99-cent hamburgers but only
                          one large soda to share among them all. And one time a little boy was lost by the
                          van driver only to be found hours later, scared and crying.

                          All the while, her mother, Guillermina Gonzales, was growing more concerned
                          about her children and angry about their work experience.

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                          "The fliers said it was to keep kids off drugs and out of gangs, and that's what
                          parents want for their kids also," she said.

                          Yadira and Noe quit after a few weeks and were never paid.

                          Deputy City Atty. David Shepherd, who prosecuted Tomorrow's Future, conceded
                          that it will be hard to find Banerjee, one of the men authorities say manipulated the

                          "Unfortunately, it's typical in a misdemeanor case. There are so many felons on the
                          loose who get priority."

                          Yadira Rodriguez and Margarita said they don't expect to see any of the money
                          owed to them. But they do hope to see Banerjee in court one day.

                          "I hope he gets caught," Rodriguez said. "I feel like he's doing this somewhere else,
                          making good money off kids."

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