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Podcast: Migrant children working long hours at seafood plants in New Bedford

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, reporters for The Public’s Radio discuss “Underage and Unprotected,” their two-year investigation into the plight of migrant teenagers working high-risk jobs

Rodrigo moved from El Salvador to the seaside city of New Bedford, Mass., in 2021 when he was 16.Kylie Cooper for The Public's Radio
Rhode Island PBSRI PBS

PROVIDENCE — Numb hands from cleaning freezers for hours. Loud noises from machines that impale crabs. Shifts that can end at 4 in the morning.

These are just some of the experiences that dozens of teenagers described to The Public’s Radio about working at seafood processing plants in New Bedford, Mass.

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, reporters Nadine Sebai and Nina Sparling described their two-year investigation into migrant teens working these risky jobs. A collaboration between The Public’s Radio and FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, the “Underage and Unprotected” series came out earlier this year, and the reporters discussed their work and what’s happened since.


Sebai said the idea for the series stemmed from conversations she had in 2019 when was covering southeastern Massachusetts. She said a source mentioned that “there are those teenagers there working at night at the fish houses, and then they go to school and they fall asleep in class,” so she began to ask questions.

The series examines the role of staffing agencies, which many teens said hired them and sent them to jobs at processing plants. It exposes weaknesses in the systems government agencies rely on to uncover child labor law violations. And it shows the toll the dangerous work takes on young people.

Sebai and Sparling interviewed more than two dozen migrant teens who said they worked in processing plants as far back as 2016. All of the teens said they had to work to pay debts to smugglers, send money home to their families, or support themselves.

“Children are working because children need money,” Sebai said. “The kids who are working, for the most part, are migrant teens coming from Central America. And they’re coming with mountains of debt from their smugglers, bringing them across the border. And they have rent to pay and they have to pay for their families back home.”


Sparling said the reporting helped to inspire US Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, to co-sponsor legislation to crack down on exploitative child labor practices. The Children Harmed in Life-threatening or Dangerous (CHILD) Labor Act would allow stronger penalties for employers who violate child labor laws and let children who have been seriously injured to sue their employers.

Experts report that penalties are now too low to dissuade companies from violating child labor laws, Sparling said. “One expert said that they’re so low that companies can treat it as a ‘cost of doing business,’” she said.

The legislation also would make it easier for regulators to hold companies and staffing agencies accountable, she said, and it would authorize the US Department of Labor to label products that are produced with child labor.

To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.