Public’s Radio investigation uncovers possible violations of child labor laws

Posted 9/28/23

STORY OF THE WEEK : New Bedford’s half-billion-dollar commercial fishing catch is one of the economic bright spots in southern New England. But the underside of the seafood business includes …

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Public’s Radio investigation uncovers possible violations of child labor laws

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: New Bedford’s half-billion-dollar commercial fishing catch is one of the economic bright spots in southern New England. But the underside of the seafood business includes possible violations of child labor, overtime pay and anti-retaliation laws, as a lengthy investigation by The Public’s Radio reported last week. (Find the coverage at www.thepublicsradio.org) Among the findings by my colleagues Nadine Sebai and Nina Sparling: the U.S. Department of Labor is investigating a handful of companies; staffing agencies play a key role in sending workers to fish-processing companies, offering a potential level of deniability for employers; some young people are struggling with 21-hour days; and as more than a quarter-million unaccompanied minors have entered the U.S. in recent years, many fleeing violence in Central America, the oversight system is ill-equipped to stop the flow of migrant children into dangerous jobs. As Rep. Kathy Castor put it during a recent congressional hearing, “Businesses are exploiting children as a source of cheap labor and preying on their financial desperation. This type of child exploitation must not be tolerated.” Aspects of this story have persisted for decades. In 1906, Upton Sinclair exposed in his book “The Jungle” disturbing aspects of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. In 1939, John Steinbeck underscored the punishing aspect of agricultural work through his novel The Grapes of Wrath. And now reporters such as Hannah Dreier of The New York Times and my colleagues are shining a light on the ongoing exploitation of children.

THE MONEY CRUNCH FOR TRANSIT: RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian tells me that the state agency is actively discussing whether to ask voters to approve a ballot question to fund a variety of transit needs. “Rhode Islanders tend to be very supportive of bond issues,” Avedisian said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “And they also seem to be very supportive of enhancements. And I think when we can show the connectivity with the Pawtucket/Central Falls, train station bus hub, and being able to go from there to T.F. Green, and the way that that all fits in together, I think they will respond well to those types of messages.” As it stands, RIPTA has faced an almost-perpetual crunch for adequate funding since the transit agency was established in the 1960s. A fiscal cliff of at least $30 million looms for the next fiscal year, and it’s unclear where RIPTA could get the money to restart a free-fare program on the R line from Pawtucket to South Providence, its busiest bus line, let alone the hundreds of millions needed for the agency’s ambitious transit master plan. For now, Avedisian said, talks remain ongoing with the governor’s office, DOT, and the Bridge and Turnpike Authority about how to respond to shrinking gas tax revenue.

TRANSIT CENTER: Critics have panned RIPTA’s plan to move bus service away from Kennedy Plaza to a yet-to-be-determined location, saying it will be bad for riders. Avedisian’s response is that a transit center will be better if it’s newly created. “So we've been looking at transit centers across the nation,” he said. “We have some really positive work that we've done with some of our peer agencies. And so we'd like the consortium to look at what we think could be a real win for passengers, and then tell us what's doable, what's not doable?” Contract talks with the consortium that will build the center are ongoing. Asked if the project will wind up in the I-195 District, Avedisian said, “I don’t think anything is in or out at this point.”

BASEBALL: Avedisian has been a fan of the Baltimore Orioles since he served years ago as a D.C. page for then-U.S. Sen. John Chafee. (When he was mayor of Warwick, Avedisian kept a Cal Ripken Jr. jersey in his office.) After years in the baseball wilderness, Baltimore has enjoyed a great season, with 95 wins so far and a close edge in the super-competitive AL East. Avedisian, maintaining the sense of a canny pol (or a superstitious fan), would not, however, hazard a prediction about how far the Birds will go in the postseason.

MEDIA: Welcome to the world, The Providence Eye, which calls itself “a nonprofit journalistic initiative devoted to informing and empowering the public about events and issues of concern to residents and visitors of Providence, RI, and environs. We depend on the support of individuals, foundations and businesses that recognize the importance of local news delivered from an independent perspective.” The nonprofit website’s board includes community activist Rochelle Lee; Julie Van Noppen, significant other of Armory Revival partner Mark Van Noppen; and a number of other Providence residents.

HISPANIC HERITAGE: In the quarter-century since Luis Aponte became the first Latino city councilor in Providence, Latinos have made significant gains in political representation (something that we could see coming back in 2003). Candidates from the Blackstone Valley have spearheaded a more diverse makeup for the General Assembly, and the face of the City Council has changed dramatically. At the same time, challenges remain; a 2017 study found that Latino children in RI ranked last nationally on the factors that contribute to future success. During a Hispanic Heritage celebration event on Broad Street earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed pointed to the gains that have been made and the need for more: “In addition to a celebration of success and resilience, this is also an opportunity to look at the challenges and hardships Hispanic populations have experienced and how they have persevered and flourished.  We must also recognize and remove obstacles to progress – whether it’s discrimination or barriers to affordable health care or access to capital – and ensure families and Latino small businesses have the tools they need to thrive.”

GETTING THE BUSINESS: On a related note, the RI Black Business Association is joining forces with a Boston-based civil rights group to press concerns about under-representation in state contracting. A 2021 study underscored the problem. The McKee administration has pushed back, saying progress is unfolding and asserting that the study was not based on the most recent available data.

HOUSING: Via the RI Association of Realtors: “The median price of single-family homes in Rhode Island hit $450,000 in August, an 11.1% year-over-year gain according to recently released statistics from the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. While monthly median sales prices have not fallen year-over-year since January 2017, last month’s gain is the first time Rhode Island homeowners have seen a double-digit increase since June of last year. In a contrasting trend, closed sales fell 25.2%, while pending sales put under contract in August fell 11.7%. The supply of homes for sale increased to 1.8 months, up just slightly from July’s 1.7-month supply. With less than two months’ supply of homes available, Rhode Island’s home shortage continues to be more severe than the country’s overall. The National Association of Realtors cited a 3.3-month supply available in July, in the association’s most recent housing report. Both state and national inventory is still well below the five- to six-month supply which typically indicates a balanced market.”

 KICKER: The world would be a little less bright without the IgNobel Prizes, which honor achievements that make people first laugh and then think. I first learned of the Igs while profiling creator Marc Abrahams back at the turn of the millennium. He’s still at it and you can watch video online of the 33rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Awards were presented, among other things, for a high-tech toilet and a study into whether each nostril contains the same number of hairs.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@thepublicsradio.org.