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Kill. Clean. Repeat.

Nathanael quickly learned the routine. Rip the legs off a crab. Clean them with giant spinning wire brushes. Toss them down a chute. Repeat.

“Sometimes when you kill a crab, the brain splatters,” he said. “When you remove the shell, everything splatters.”

Nathanael said he began working at The Atlantic Red Crab Co., in New Bedford, Massachusetts last fall, when he was 14. He said he worked alongside his cousin, Joel, who was then 16. Three workers told The Public’s Radio they witnessed the teens killing, cleaning, and weighing crabs at the plant.

The Guatemalan teenagers had recently arrived in the United States after swimming across the border from Mexico. A family member said the cousins applied to a staffing agency using fake IDs, and that the agency – Workforce Unlimited, Inc. – sent them to work at the plant. The teens said they routinely worked 12-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, making $16.50 an hour.

“Over time, doing it every day, the body can’t take it,” Joel said.

An iPhone held by a young man’s hand shows a dock at night
Nathanael shows a photo he says he took while working at The Atlantic Red Crab Co. when he was 14 years old.
Nadine Sebai The Public’s Radio

Nathanael and Joel’s experiences are not unique. The Public’s Radio interviewed more than two dozen migrant teens who described working long hours cutting heads off salmon, picking bones out of cod, and cleaning lobsters in New Bedford seafood processing plants. The smell of fish, they said, clung to their clothes and skin, even after they showered.

The teens described working in the industry as far back as 2016. Several said they worked overnight shifts, barely sleeping before waking up to go to school the next day, where they struggled to stay awake in class.

The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating Atlantic Red Crab and Workforce Unlimited for possible violations of child labor, overtime pay, and anti-retaliation laws, according to documents obtained by The Public’s Radio. The Labor Department is also investigating Sea Watch International, a Maryland-based clam processor that has a plant in New Bedford.

A man in a blue T-shirt with graying hair poses for the camera, sitting behind his cluttered desk
Jon Williams, President of The Atlantic Red Crab Company, poses for a photo at the company headquarters in New Bedford, Massachusetts on Sept. 6, 2023. The company relies on temporary workers from area temp agencies to staff their seafood processing facilities. A large contingent of the workers are immigrants from Central America.
Matthew Healey for The Public’s Radio

In May, Labor Department investigators found a 16-year-old working at one of Atlantic Red Crab’s processing plants,according to the company. In an interview, owner Jon Williams said the teen, who was immediately removed, was hired through a staffing agency.

“It isn’t like I hired this person, but the staffing agency sent that person to my building,” he said. “And yes, that person worked in my building. I can’t deny that. But sometimes I have 150 people working in my building, and they all wear hairnets and face masks. So it’s pretty hard to tell an 18-year-old from a 16-year-old.”

Asked about Nathanael and Joel, he said, “If that happened, I was totally unaware of it. And I will also say we wouldn’t support that type of thing.”

He added that workers who use fake IDs “are lying to us that they’re legal and that they’re 18 years old.”

Sea Watch declined to comment. Workforce Unlimited did not reply to emails, texts, or calls.

A Labor Department spokesperson would neither confirm nor comment on the investigation.

A closed glass door in a brick building with a sign: "Workforce Unlimited: Temporary Employment"
Entrance to the staffing agency, Workforce Unlimited, in Johnston, Rhode Island.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

The Public’s Radio spent two years investigating whether migrant children were working in New Bedford seafood processing plants. With the support of the PBS series FRONTLINE, reporters reviewed over two thousand pages of documents and spoke to more than 100 sources.

A record number of unaccompanied minors – more than 250,000 – have entered the U.S. during the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years, including Nathanael, Joel, and many of the teens interviewed by The Public’s Radio. Most of these migrant children are from Central America; many are fleeing poverty and violence.

Under U.S. immigration rules, undocumented adults — and children traveling with parents or other adult family members — are often turned away at the border. Not so with migrant children who arrive alone. By law, federal authorities have “custody and must provide care for each unaccompanied child.”

The unprecedented surge has exposed flaws in the agencies responsible for protecting unaccompanied minors. Reviews of court records and inspection reports, alongside interviews with dozens of attorneys, current and former regulators, advocates, and teachers, reveal an oversight system ill-equipped to stop the flow of migrant children into dangerous jobs.

In the past two years, state and federal investigators have found migrant children working overnight shifts at meatpackers in eight states and auto part manufacturers in Alabama. In July, a 16-year-old migrant from Guatemala died when he was ensnared in a machine at a poultry processing plant in Mississippi.

“Businesses are exploiting children as a source of cheap labor and preying on their financial desperation,” Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said at a recent Congressional oversight hearing on migrant children. “This type of child exploitation must not be tolerated.”

Most of the teens said they were hired through staffing agencies that supply workers to seafood processors. Some didn’t know the names of the companies where they worked or the agencies that hired them. Nearly every teen said they applied for their jobs with fake IDs that showed they were over 18.

Federal law prohibits 14- and 15-year-olds from working in any manufacturing setting, including seafood processing. In Massachusetts, 16- and 17-year-olds are not allowed to work more than 9 hours a day, more than 48 hours a week, or after 10 pm on school nights. The Commonwealth has stricter rules for 14- and 15-year-olds.

“It doesn’t surprise me” that there are migrant teens working in seafood processing, said Carlos Matos, Boston district director of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, in an interview before The Public’s Radio learned of the ongoing investigation. Other regulators agreed.

But, they said, their agencies often don’t have adequate staff to find violations unless workers complain – and the vast majority are too scared to speak up. That approach, officials and experts said, is not enough to protect migrant children.

The Public’s Radio is not using Nathanael and Joel’s full names because they are minors. The news organization is also not identifying the other teens who spoke with reporters, because they have pending immigration cases or were under 18 at the time of their interviews. Most of the interviews were conducted in Spanish.

All of the teens said they had to work to pay debts to smugglers, send money home to their families, or support themselves. None could afford the months-long wait for a permit that would allow them to work in the U.S. legally. The teens said they felt working at seafood processing plants was the only way they could earn money.

“They’re not living the American dream,” said Liz Lozada, a case manager who counseled New Bedford High School students, many of whom worked in seafood processing plants, a job she herself once held. “They’re living the American nightmare.”

Swimming across the border

Nathanael is around 5 feet, 5 inches tall, with thick, dark brown hair, parted on the side. He said his co-workers thought he was 12 years old, but he told them he was just short.

Joel is taller, quietly confident, and loves playing soccer.

The cousins agreed to speak to The Public’s Radio on the record, with their sponsor's permission, after they met with Labor Department investigators.

Last year, Nathanael left Mazatenango, a small agricultural city in Guatemala where he lived with his family to escape from a gang that he said had been pressuring him to sell drugs.

His cousin Joel had moved to Mexico a few years earlier, fleeing the same pressures. An aunt drove Nathanael into Mexico. From there, he paid smugglers to take him to Tijuana, where Joel, who was then 15, was living with a friend. To support himself, Joel said he worked on construction sites and as a car mechanic.

The cousins decided to cross the U.S. border together, at night, from a beach in Tijuana.

It was high tide when they waded into the frigid Pacific Ocean, Joel said. He didn’t know how to swim, and the current was strong. He shivered as he held Nathanael’s hand, but the waves pulled him under.

“At some point, I fell in a hole which was very deep,” Joel said. “I truly thought it was going to be the end.”

A wave had already carried Nathanael to shore.

“When I looked back, I saw Joel drowning,” the younger cousin said. He ran back to help, but Joel had managed to get out of the water.

“Then we started running before immigration surrounded us,” Nathanael said.

After Nathanael and Joel came ashore in southern California, the cousins said federal agents took them into custody and sent them to shelters in different states.

Small waves crash down on a beach at an idyllic time of day. A wall that appears to be made of aluminum sheeting goes maybe 50 feet into the water, with birds sitting on top.
The wall between the U.S.-Mexico border at Playas de Tijuana.

Many migrant children who enter the U.S. alone can stay in the country while they apply for asylum or other forms of immigration relief. Once federal agents take them into custody, they are sent to shelters that are under the jurisdiction of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While unaccompanied minors wait in shelters, ORR caseworkers identify and screen potential adult guardians, called sponsors. Sponsors pledge to support migrant children financially.

After children move in with sponsors, many face pressure to work. Many teens in New Bedford were released into households struggling to make ends meet. Some sponsors make as little as $500 a week, according to government documents obtained by The Public’s Radio.

In a statement, an ORR spokesperson said the agency only releases unaccompanied minors to sponsors who it has determined can support the child physically and mentally and that the agency lacks the authority to provide financial assistance to low-income families.

As unprecedented numbers of children have crossed the border in recent years, the federal government opened new emergency intake sites, which have come under scrutiny for exposing children to physical and emotional harm.

In February, The New York Times revealed that, under pressure from the Biden administration to release children from shelters quickly, ORR ignored or missed warnings and sent migrant teens to live with adults who expected them to work.

In March, the Biden administration announced it would provide more support to unaccompanied minors after their release, by helping children access medical, legal and other services in their new communities. More children are receiving that support, but immigration advocates say those measures alone will not protect unaccompanied minors from labor exploitation.

Once migrant teens are released to sponsors, they cannot work legally, at least not right away. They can apply for asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, among other avenues that can lead to a work permit. But that can take more than a year.

Several teens also said they hired an immigration attorney to help them navigate that process, which can cost thousands of dollars. Joel said he never had a lawyer because he couldn’t afford to pay one. (Community advocates in New Bedford say there is a shortage of pro bono immigration attorneys in the area.) To pay their mounting bills, many teens turn to friends and family to help them obtain fake IDs and find work through staffing agencies.

After a month and a half apart, Nathanael and Joel reunited in Providence, Rhode Island, and moved into an apartment with their sponsor, Nathanael’s sister, her two young children, and another relative.

The cousins said they began looking for jobs as soon as they arrived in Providence, because they wanted to support themselves as much as they could.

A teenager puts a Croc on a toddler in a living room
Nathanael, 15, puts on his nephew’s shoe inside their apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, in June.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

A family member said Workforce Unlimited sent Nathanael and Joel to work at Atlantic Red Crab before they filled out a job application or provided identity documents. The day after a relative called the staffing agency, a van came and took them to work at a seafood processor, they said.

“We simply got on the van and were driven to the workplace,” Joel said. “We were simply told, ‘This is going to be your job.’”

The Public’s Radio was unable to determine how many children work or have worked in seafood plants in recent years. Minors slip in and out of temporary jobs, where, with their fake IDs, they’re hired as adults. Other people in their lives, from sponsors to family members to teachers, know they are working and either need them to work or hesitate to do anything that would jeopardize their jobs and make the children’s lives more difficult.

“This immigration system in the United States — it is totally broken,” said Helena DaSilva Hughes, president of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford.

Click here to listen to hear more of The Public’s Radio’s investigation into underage workers.

Underage and Unprotected, Part II | The Public’s Radio

20,000 pounds of crab

Atlantic Red Crab invited The Public’s Radio to tour its plant and view its operations.

On a September morning before dawn, a dark green fishing boat called the Hannah Boden arrives at a narrow dock at the New Bedford port, delivering more than 20,000 pounds of red crabs to the seafood processor. It’s a light load — the boat can carry more than three times that amount.

Men, called lumpers, climb aboard the docked boat and down a ladder into the fish hold, where they stand atop a pile of live crabs. They start tossing the crabs into big plastic tubs — each one carries about 100 pounds. A pulley system swings the tubs up onto the dock, where workers pull them into the processing facility, weigh them, and stack them onto a pallet. Then, the tubs are moved into a nearby freezer to await processing or shipment.

Fishermen on a dock lifting several objects at dawn
Crew members from the crab boat Hannah Boden help bring crates of Atlantic red crab onto the dock of The Atlantic Red Crab Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts on Sept. 6, 2023. The company relies on temporary workers from area temp agencies to staff their seafood processing facilities. A large contingent of the workers are immigrants from Central America.
Matthew Healey for The Public’s Radio

Around 7 am, a crew of workers arrive at the low slung, blue building where Atlantic Red Crab processes seafood. They wear face masks and hairnets; rubber boots and rubber smocks; and disposable aprons over their clothes. They range in age — the oldest appeared to be in their 50s. A strong smell of seafood hangs in the air.

A constant grating noise emanates from the most prominent piece of equipment in the plant: the machine that workers use to kill and clean crabs. The machine is at the center of the processing line. Workstations on either side are outfitted with a triangular metal protrusion and two spinning wire brushes.

This plant is where Nathanael and Joel said they worked, and the processing tasks The Public’s Radio witnessed, looked very much like the ones the cousins described in interviews.

A worker brings a few crates of crab to the production line at a time, loading them onto a conveyor belt. Workers pull a crate off the belt when it reaches their station. Then, they grab a crab, whack it against the metal protrusion while ripping its legs off, killing the crab, and dropping the top shell into a disposal bin, before cleaning the legs against the spinning wire brushes. The whole process takes a few seconds.

Workers then toss the clean legs down a second conveyor belt, where water sprays them before they drop off the production line into brightly colored, smaller plastic tubs. The legs are sent a mile-and-a-half away, to the company’s second processing plant, to be cooked and packaged.

A person carries a full bin of crabs
A worker fills plastic tubs of cleaned crab legs at The Atlantic Red Crab Co. in New Bedford, Massachusetts on September 6, 2023.
Matthew Healey for The Public’s Radio

The workers killing, cleaning, and cooking the crabs were temporary, hired through a staffing agency, according to Dawn McFarland Walsh, the company’s chief operating officer. Often, temporary workers outnumber full-time employees at the company, she said.

Atlantic Red Crab has long relied on staffing agencies to provide workers for its processing plants, Williams, the company’s owner, said. Its labor needs fluctuate regularly depending on how much crab there is to process. Every day, the company determines how many workers they need the next day.

“We can call the staffing agency and say we need 20 people tomorrow,” Walsh said. “I can’t do that. There’s no other way to do that.”

Walsh said staffing agencies charge a roughly 34% mark-up over hourly wages. Still, it’s less expensive to pay those rates to have a flexible workforce than it is to hire full time employees, she said.

She said she is surprised that the Labor Department is investigating Atlantic Red Crab for possible labor violations, given that the company doesn’t hire many of its workers directly.

“We weren’t sure why it came back to us, considering we were hiring an agency,” Walsh said. “Just like anything, if I hire a plumber, I expect them to do everything correctly.”

A woman in a white buttondown smiles for the camera. She's in an office, with a factory visible through the background through her window.
Dawn McFarland Walsh, Chief Operating Officer for The Atlantic Red Crab Co.
Matthew Healey for The Public’s Radio

Labor law experts say, however, that companies should be responsible for the actions of the staffing agencies and subcontractors they hire. Some federal agencies, and the Massachusetts courts can treat both staffing firms and the companies where they place workers as “joint employers” if certain conditions are met.

In February, the Labor Department said enforcing child labor laws requires holding both staffing agencies and the companies where they place workers accountable.

In a statement, Marty Walsh, then-U.S. Secretary of Labor and former Boston mayor, said, “Too often, companies look the other way and claim that their staffing agency, or their subcontractor or supplier is responsible. Everyone has a responsibility here.”

‘What’s your birthday?’

Atlantic Red Crab also contracts with Superior Temps, a New Bedford-based staffing agency, according to Walsh. Lucio Avila, Superior’s president, said that Labor Department investigators came to his agency in May.

“We provided them with all the information on everybody that works for us and several different clients that we service,” Avila said. “And they found no fault in us, because number one, we have a policy that we do not hire anyone under 18 years old.”

The Public’s Radio reviewed the fake IDs used by two teenagers who applied for work at Superior Temps. The staffing agency sent both teens to work at seafood processing plants, placing one at Atlantic Red Crab. Reporters reviewed the teens’ pay stubs, which listed the names on their fake IDs, and confirmed their ages and other personal details by reviewing their birth certificates.

The federal government says employers must examine the documents job applicants provide and accept those that “reasonably appear to be genuine,” but does not expect companies to be “document experts.” Massachusetts and Rhode Island are among several states that do not require private companies to use E-Verify, a system that can check if a social security number is valid, but cannot identify whether it belongs to the person using it.

“No employer, staffing agency or otherwise is expected to be experts in fraud,” said Stephen Dwyer, president of the American Staffing Association, a trade organization that represents the industry. “But they are expected and will be held to the legal standard of knowing whether something reasonably appears to be valid on its face.”

A recruiter at a New Bedford staffing agency said applicants who look younger than 18 frequently come in looking for work with fake IDs. The recruiter asks them, “What is your birthday?” Often, they don’t remember the birth date on their fake IDs.

“Our answer is: ‘If you do not know your date of birth, then we can’t,’” the recruiter said.

The Public’s Radio agreed not to identify the recruiter or the agency that employs them to protect their job. (It is neither Workforce Unlimited nor Superior Temps.)

The recruiter, who worked in seafood processing as a minor, said some seafood companies tell the staffing agency they don’t care if workers are using fake IDs. Others, the recruiter said, are more vigilant.

On the waterfront

Docks, boats, and several-story-tall buildings all packed into one waterfront picture
New Bedford’s waterfront.
Gretchen Ertl for The Public’s Radio

The fishing boats that come in and out of New Bedford’s port helped move nearly $570 million in seafood in 2021, the nation’s most valuable catch, according to a federal government report. Along the waterfront sit several seafood processing plants, where workers cut, filet, and package fish caught locally or imported from other regions, which is then sold across the U.S. and around the world.

A few of the plants, including Atlantic Red Crab, are located along New Bedford’s Herman Melville Boulevard, a wide street named for the author of Moby-Dick. Melville set the opening chapters of his novel, published in 1851, in New Bedford, then the center of the whaling industry.

By the 1900’s, the textile industry powered the city’s economy, and immigrant children routinely worked 10 hours a day in mills. Their working conditions contributed to the Massachusetts Legislature passing a law in 1913 banning children under the age of 16 from working more than eight hours a day.

Two young children stand in a textile factory in this sepia photo
Young workers in New Bedford’s Wamsutta Mill in 1912.
LEWIS HINE, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, NATIONAL CHILD LABOR COMMITTEE COLLECTION Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection

As textile mills shuttered, New Bedford’s fleet of fishing boats expanded. An ample local supply of scallops fueled that growth. Seafood processors arrived to support the burgeoning maritime industry.

For years, the vast majority of seafood processing workers in New Bedford were unionized. But throughout the 1980s, in the midst of local strikes by processing workers and fishermen, and against the backdrop of the weakening of organized labor across the U.S., local union membership plummeted.

“These jobs were very high-skilled, very well respected, and very well-paid jobs,” said Corinn Williams, the director of the Community Economic Development Center, a group that works with immigrants in the New Bedford area. “People were compensated and there were strong union protections.”

By the mid-1990s, newly-arriving Central American immigrants found work in seafood processing, where they could learn on the job and didn’t need to speak English. But they encountered a profoundly altered workplace. Today, the unions no longer exist and many of the jobs are temporary, hired through staffing agencies. The Public’s Radio has identified at least seven agencies that have supplied workers to seafood processing companies.

“It kept an open opportunity for a lot of labor exploitation and a lot of abusive conditions in a lot of these companies,” Williams said.

More than 3,600 people worked in seafood processing in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that figure does not include temporary workers hired by staffing agencies. The bureau’s data also doesn’t include detailed information on the industries where staffing firms send workers. The number of those workers may vary depending on the season, although some people employed by staffing agencies have worked at the same plant for years.

The number of temporary workers in the United States has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Across industries, companies have embraced staffing firms as a way to reduce labor costs and make it easier to add or cut workers quickly. By outsourcing their hiring and offloading the responsibility for verifying workers’ eligibility documents, companies can try to reduce their liability, legal experts say.

Nationwide, temporary workers often earn lower wages than full time employees, and are less likely to receive benefits such as paid time off or retirement plans, according to labor law experts and several research reports. Current and former regulators said that labor law violations are more common in industries that rely on staffing agencies and immigrant workers.

“It’s a business model almost set up for violation,” said David Weil, former administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. “You can start preying upon the most vulnerable set of workers we have in this country, which are children.”

A decade ago, Massachusetts passed the Temporary Workers Right to Know Law. The legislation requires staffing agencies to register with the state and provide employees with basic information about their job assignments.

The law was the first in the nation specifically aimed at protecting temporary workers and opened the door for such workers to sue their employers over issues like transportation fees.

In 2020, a group of Workforce Unlimited employees filed a class action lawsuit against Workforce Unlimited and Sea Watch. The suit alleges that, for years, the staffing firm charged them excessive fees for rides to and from work at Sea Watch, pushing their hourly pay below minimum wage, in violation of state law.

The workers argued that both the seafood processor and the staffing firm were their employers and, as a result, were both liable. Court records show that in January, Workforce Unlimited and Sea Watch agreed to a preliminary settlement of $450,000. Both companies denied wrongdoing.

Nathanael and Joel said that Workforce Unlimited charged them $12 a day for the van ride to and from work. On paydays, they said, the van took all the workers to a check cashing store in Providence. There, the driver brought their checks inside and then returned with cash for each worker — minus deductions for the ride and the cost of cashing the check.

Dangerous jobs

A few times, without warning, Nathanael and Joel said the van driver took them to a seafood processing plant in Rhode Island. There, Nathanael said, he weighed squid in a freezer. He didn’t have a sweater to keep him warm, but he said he couldn’t leave.

“I could not get out of there, and so I put up with it,” Nathanael said.

At the end of their shifts, a van came to drive them home. They arrived well after dark, ate, took a shower, and slept for a few hours before going to work again the next morning.

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which included the first permanent federal protections for children in the workplace. The Labor Department is investigating whether the two seafood processors and Workforce Unlimited have complied with the law.

The federal government, over several decades, implemented a series of regulations known as Hazardous Occupation Orders, banning 16- and 17-year-olds from working in certain high-risk industries. One of the orders prohibits such teens from working in meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, but specifically does not apply to such teens working in fish and seafood processing plants.

“If you do not place it well, you run the risk of losing some skin on your hand.”
Nathanael, on working with one of the processing factory’s machines

The Hazardous Occupation Orders also prohibit minors from using certain power-driven machines. But investigators evaluate what exactly a minor is doing with such equipment on a case-by-case basis, according to the Labor Department.

In the early 2000s, children’s health advocates pressed the Labor Department to expand those rules to prohibit 16- and 17-year-olds from working with power-driven machines in seafood processing plants. But in 2010, the Labor Department rejected their request, because “no data was submitted regarding the level of youth employment in that industry or the injury rates experienced by that industry.”

Children should not be working in industries that are dangerous for adults, according to multiple federal health agencies. In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the risk of injury or illness in fish processing was more than twice the average for all industries.

Nathanael and Joel said they wore heavy rubber boots to keep from falling on floors slick with crab fat and thick rubber gloves to protect their hands from pincers that grabbed their fingers.

Nathanael said he learned to be careful when using the machine with spinning wire brushes to clean crabs. If his hands got too close, he feared the machine might snag his glove, or worse, his skin.

“If you do not place it well, you run the risk of losing some skin on your hand,” he said.

Rubber boots stand alone and empty
Rubber boots that Nathanael said he wore to keep from falling on the slippery processing plant floor.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

Workers in New Bedford seafood processing plants have lost fingertips to power-driven machines, broken bones, and suffered chemical burns, according to documents obtained from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency has fined numerous New Bedford processors for health and safety violations in recent years.

In June, OSHA announced it would spend the next five years regularly inspecting New England seafood processors in an effort to make the work safer. The agency tried a similar approach in 2011, according to documents obtained by The Public’s Radio. The injury rate in seafood processing remains stubbornly high, according to OSHA.

OSHA records show two men died from injuries they sustained while working at Sea Watch over the past decade, one in 2014, the other in 2019. Both had been hired through Workforce Unlimited.

OSHA fined Sea Watch a total of $35,879 for both incidents. In 2014, according to the agency, Sea Watch employed 15 full time employees, and hired 185 temporary workers through Workforce Unlimited. The staffing agency paid $5,131 in fines in the 2014 case.

“It's like a drop in the bucket,” said Adrian Ventura, executive director of the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a labor advocacy organization for immigrants in New Bedford. “It’s nothing.”

Small penalties for labor violations across federal agencies do little to change business practices, experts and labor advocates said. Currently, the maximum fine for child labor violations is $15,138, per child.

It’s “the cost of doing business,” said Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy.

In February, the Labor Department called on Congress to raise the civil penalties for companies that use child labor. Since 2018, the agency has seen a 69% increase in child labor violations, which the agency acknowledges coincides with the influx of migrant children.

That call comes as several states have loosened or are considering loosening child labor laws. In Iowa, the governor signed a bill in May permitting 14- and 15-year-olds to do certain work in meat coolers and industrial laundries. In Minnesota, a bill would let 16- and 17-year-olds work in construction.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, companies across the country have struggled to fill jobs, especially in low-wage industries. Weil, the former Labor Department administrator, said employers see teenagers as a ready supply of cheap labor.

“It’s a way of averting the need to raise wages,” he said. “It’s a way of not figuring out other ways that you can increase labor supply legally.”

‘A terrible system’

Teachers, advocates, and caseworkers in New Bedford told The Public’s Radio they knew migrant teens worked long shifts in risky jobs in seafood processing plants. But adult after adult said they feared doing anything that might jeopardize the jobs those teens relied on to support themselves – and their families back home.

“If all of a sudden, tomorrow, the fish houses decide we are getting rid of everybody who’s here, then you are leaving them with nothing,” Hughes, the immigration advocate said. (Many locals refer to seafood processing plants as “fish houses.”)

But in 2019, Hughes spoke up: she told the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, which enforces child labor laws in the state, about unaccompanied minors working in seafood processing plants. Some teens, she said, were working late into the night and falling asleep in their high school classes.

Hughes hoped telling the AG’s office might put pressure on seafood companies to improve the working conditions in the plants. At the time, the office was led by Maura Healey, who is now the state’s governor.

“It was never for them to lose their jobs,” Hughes said.

A woman who looks disappointed poses for a photo, her arms crossed
Helena DaSilva Hughes, president of Immigrants Assistance Center in New Bedford, MA.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

State and federal agencies largely rely on workers coming forward to open investigations into potential labor violations – and to prove them. But research shows that across industries, vulnerable, low-wage workers are unlikely to complain to regulators about their working conditions. They may fear losing their jobs or jeopardizing their immigration cases, or they may not know that they can file a complaint.

“In certain types of cases, you need to either speak to a worker or witness the violation ourselves in order to prove it,” said Lauren Moran, the chief of the Fair Labor Division at the AG’s office.

The tip from Hughes didn’t concern a specific worker or seafood processing plant. In response, the AG’s office conducted a series of compliance visits to New Bedford’s seafood processing plants, according to records obtained by The Public’s Radio.

Such visits lack the force and scope of a full-fledged investigation and are a way for an understaffed agency that receives more complaints than it can investigate to “leverage resources,” Moran said.

Records show the AG’s office visited 20 New Bedford plants in 2019. One processor said it had employed a 17-year-old for a short time over that summer. Investigators found no additional evidence of minors working at processors at the time of their visits, according to emails reviewed by The Public’s Radio.

No workers came forward during those visits, Moran said. The agency ended the visits less than a year after they began, the emails show.

A woman in a pantsuit walks away from a podium that reads "Attorney General Massachusetts"
Lauren Moran, the chief of the Fair Labor Division at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

In the past four years, the AG’s office has aggressively pursued child labor violations at fast food restaurants across Massachusetts, cases that have resulted in six-figure fines to companies such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Qdoba.

In 2020, the agency found more than 13,250 labor law violations at Chipotle, a case that settled for nearly $2 million — the largest child labor investigation in agency history. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to pay $500,000 into a fund to help educate young people about child labor laws.

In many instances, the AG’s office began investigating the fast food chains after workers themselves – or their parents – filed complaints. Such investigations often rely on audits of payroll and timekeeping records, which, if a child is using a fake ID and was hired through a staffing agency, are unlikely to catch violations, according to several current and former investigators.

“It’s not like you’re going to find a spreadsheet that has all these kids with their ages next to them,” said Nancy Leppink, another former administrator with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

In the initial response to Hughes’ tip, an official in the AG’s office expressed interest in meeting with migrant teens at local high schools to educate them about their legal rights. The agency also offered to meet with teens’ sponsors to “inform them of their rights and responsibilities,” according to emails obtained by The Public’s Radio. An agency spokesperson confirmed neither of those initiatives were implemented.

“There’s a need for proactively figuring out where the problems are,” said Weil, the former Labor Department administrator.

There are “children showing up at schools with burns on their hands because they’ve been using chemicals.”

Such investigations require resources, primarily staff, that many state agencies lack. Moran acknowledged that relying primarily on complaints is “a terrible system.”

“We know that there’s going to be people that we’re never going to hear from,” she said.

Current and former investigators told the Public’s Radio that enforcement agencies are unprepared for the large number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. In fiscal year 2016, more than 59,000 such children entered the country alone. By 2022, twice as many — more than 128,000 — had come into the U.S. As of June, nearly 85,000 unaccompanied migrant children had entered the country during fiscal year 2023.

“We’re prepared for doing average situations,” said J. Adam Strickland, one of two child labor inspectors in Alabama. Strickland worked on the cases that foundmigrant children as young as 13 working at an Alabama auto manufacturing plant that supplies parts to Hyundai.

“We have an unprecedented situation showing up over the past couple of years that none of us are prepared for, including myself,” Strickland said.

A ‘critical’ role

Nathanael and Joel never considered complaining about their long hours or the daily fees they paid for van rides to and from work.

“If we complained, we thought we would be fired,” Joel said. The adults they worked with didn’t complain either. “We just followed their lead. If they didn’t speak up, we didn’t speak up.”

That changed this spring, after a family member went to a meeting at CCT, the immigrant rights labor organization, and learned the group was collecting complaints to bring to the Labor Department.

In June, the cousins said investigators with the agency interviewed them about their jobs.

“I told them I was given a check that was not in my name, and that [Workforce Unlimited] still owed me a paycheck,” Joel said. “And that was it.”

For more than a year, CCT had been hearing workers’ concerns about wage theft and retaliation at Workforce Unlimited, Atlantic Red Crab, and Sea Watch, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.

Two former workers hired by Workforce Unlimited showed The Public’s Radio pay stubs from checks they had received from the staffing agency that listed someone else’s name as the payee. The workers’ names were written by hand on the pay stubs. The news organization also reviewed a paycheck made out to a worker last year that had another person’s name written on the pay stub. The check was signed by Workforce Unlimited’s president, Andrew Wilkes.

Ventura, CCT’s executive director, said his organization is trying to support workers during the investigation.

“People are very fearful about these companies or temp agencies retaliating against them, so that is why we teach them how to get organized, how they can get to feel safer when the government gets involved,” said Ventura.

A man stands in front of dozens of people in chairs who are asking him questions
Adrian Ventura, Executive Director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, talks to seafood processing workers at the Iglesia Vision Evangelica in Providence, Rhode Island, in July.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

Immigrant workers will play a “critical” role in the investigation, according to three letters obtained by The Public’s Radio, that the Labor Department sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which enforces immigration law. The agency wrote that it needs those workers, many of whom lack legal work authorization, to be able to participate in its ongoing probe and in any possible litigation, without fear of deportation or jeopardizing their immigration cases.

“DOL is committed to protecting all workers in the U.S., including low-wage and immigrant workers who are among the most at risk for violations of basic labor standards,” the Labor Department letters read. “In meeting that commitment, we must guard against the use of immigration status as a tool of retaliation against workers asserting their legal rights.”

In January, the Homeland Security Department announced it was streamlining the process for federal and state labor agencies to request protection for “noncitizen workers who are victims of, or witnesses to, the violation of labor rights.”

The Labor Department in the letters expressed its support for “prosecutorial discretion” for all workers, “current and former,” hired by the staffing firm or the seafood processors since mid-2020.

Through a federal effort called deferred action, and other avenues, such discretion could give those workers an additional two years to remain in the United States while pursuing their immigration cases. Workers could also be eligible to receive permits to allow them to work legally.

In a statement to The Public’s Radio, a Labor Department spokesperson said the agency “has long supported prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis,” to further enforcement of labor laws.

‘It’s not a solution’

Advocates and regulators agree that increased labor law enforcement efforts alone won’t stop the child labor crisis unfolding across the country.

“There are a lot of missed opportunities that have occurred before that kid is working the night shift in a seafood company,” Leppink, the former Labor Department administrator, said.

When regulators uncover child labor violations, they often fine employers and remove children from their jobs. But those children still need money. Unless migrant teens have financial support or a way to work legally, Leppink said, kids will continue to be at risk.

“As soon as that kid can find another dangerous job, they’ll be working again, unless a lot of other systems actually have stepped up and done what they need to do to protect these kids,” she said. “It’s not an excuse. I’m just saying it’s not a solution.”

Protecting children from labor exploitation requires deeper fixes to the immigration system, according to María José Morales, a therapist who works with young people through the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford.

“I really hope that the government understands that opening up work permits and a pathway to citizenship is the way to do this,” said Morales, “Not only for the individuals, but for the country.”

Immigration attorney Ondine Galvez Sniffin, who represents two of the teens interviewed for this story, said a work permit “opens the door to so many things,” like a Social Security number, not just better job opportunities.

“It gives them freedom,” Sniffin said. “It makes them more concrete members of society.”

Earlier this year, the House passed a bill that included provisions aimed at discouraging unaccompanied minors from coming to the U.S. in the first place. The provision, which is part of a larger Republican-backed immigration bill, would allow federal agents to deport unaccompanied children who cross the border more quickly. President Joe Biden has said he would veto the bill.

“On a border trip last year, I asked a CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officer how to stop the trafficking of children into this country,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing in April. “His answer was immediate: get them safely home.”

In August, Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell signed onto a letter to Homeland Security from several state AG’s offices requesting the agency expedite the process for new immigrants to receive work permits.

“Work authorization for newcomers not only helps to meet these demands, but it also reduces the risk that workers will be subjected to subminimum wages, unsafe working conditions and other violations of their workplace rights,” the AG’s letter reads.

A spokesperson for the agency said its request relates to all immigrants applying for status, including minors.

Migrant Youth Work in Fish Processing Plants
The sponsor of an unaccompanied minor sorts through legal paperwork.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

The request followed similar efforts from the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation. In September, Governor Maura Healey made a similar request in a letter of her own. The Biden Administration has also encouraged eligible new immigrants to apply for work authorization.

‘It’s very, very hard’

In January, Nathanael and Joel quit their jobs at Atlantic Red Crab. In February, they started classes at Providence’s Central High School.

Nathanael’s English as a Second Language teacher noted how focused the ninth-grader seemed even after his first few months in school. Joel liked getting to know his classmates and playing soccer in the gym.

Nathanael’s sister was supporting him financially and helping him apply for a work permit. Joel, who could not afford a lawyer, found a job at a poultry shop, feeding chickens and cleaning.

The cousins enjoyed spending their free time watching action movies. Joel’s favorites were The Fast and the Furious movies.

Fish packers
Joel (center) on his way to class at Central High School in Providence, Rhode Island, in June.
Jodi Hilton for The Public’s Radio

Over the summer, Joel decided not to go back to school. At the beginning of September, he left New Bedford and made his way to California, where he is awaiting travel documents that will allow him to return to Guatemala. Joel’s grandmother, who raised him, is ill, and he wants to be with her.

Nathanael started 10th grade in August. He said he would tell newly arriving migrant teens to avoid jobs in seafood processing plants.

“It’s very tiring and the smell is unbearable. And the sound of the machine and you’re on your feet,” he said. “It’s very, very hard.”

This story is part of a collaboration between The Public’s Radio and FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Click here for more stories from the series Underage and Unprotected.