The U.S. Department of Labor is reportedly expanding its child labor investigation into New Bedford, Massachusetts-based seafood processing companies and the staffing firms that provide them with labor.
The U.S. Department of Labor started investigating Atlantic Red Crab and Sea Watch International, as well as staffing agencies Workforce Unlimited and B.J.’s Service Company, in late 2023. A Labor Department spokesperson told SeafoodSource in December its Wage and Hour Division (WHD) was committed to “enforcement of worker protections” focused on vulnerable workers.
“Combating illegal child labor and enforcing the rights of workers employed in industries that pay low wages and have a history of high rates of violations are among our highest priorities. This includes seafood processing,” the spokesperson said at the time.
Now, The Public’s Radio reported that the department has expanded its investigation, adding Superior Temps and Empire Staffing to the list of staffing agencies it is examining for evidence of potential child labor violations. Public’s Radio also reported federal investigators are also determining whether B.J.’s and Superior Temps have complied with federal overtime laws.
“The WHD targets low-wage industries, for example, because of high rates of violations or egregious violations, the employment of vulnerable workers, or rapid changes in an industry such as growth or decline,” a Labor Department spokesperson told The Public’s Radio. “Occasionally, a number of businesses in a specific geographic area will be examined. The objective of targeted investigations is to improve compliance with the laws in those businesses, industries, or localities.”
The reported expansion of the investigation is the latest development stemming from a report by The Public’s Radio and PBS, which discovered instances of migrant teenagers working in seafood processing plants. The teenagers, some of which were as young as 14, were found to be working for as long as 12 hours a day in the plants and were hired by the staffing agencies now under investigation. The report found the teenagers would use fake IDs to obtain employment through the staffing agencies.
The seafood processing companies have maintained they did not know the age of the employees. Atlantic Red Crab Owner Jon Williams told The Public’s Radio his company hired its employees through a staffing agency and that instances of underage workers, if discovered, are not tolerated.
“If that happened, I was totally unaware of it. And, I will also say we wouldn’t support that type of thing,” he said.
The New Bedford Light reported that Massachusetts State Representative Chris Hendricks is working on a bill to address a gray area in the state's law regarding child labor, which currently forbids children under 18 from working in meat and poultry plants – but not seafood plants.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s expansion of its investigation is the latest in a string of labor-related issues in New Bedford that are connected in some way to staffing agencies. In March 2023, Eastern Fisheries faced an investigation from the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for alleged unlawful terminations of employees, which stemmed from a group protesting the mass firing of 110 contracted workers at Eastern Fisheries’ New Bedford Facility. The company later offered to rehire the affected workers, who were employed through a staffing agency.
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