Talking Politics

A troubling look behind the scenes in the seafood business

By Ian Donnis
Posted 9/26/23

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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Talking Politics

A troubling look behind the scenes in the seafood business


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 Among the findings by my colleagues Nadine Sebai ano0nd 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.

HEADWINDS: The local wind power sector is facing some uncertainty, with a downgrade of Ørsted by Moody’s, the company’s CEO mention of a “walk-away scenario,” and the scrapping of utility power supply agreements by two Massachusetts companies. U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner attributes this in part to the growing pains of a new industry. “From what I have heard from the offshore wind developers, they are having challenges with supply chain issues,” Magaziner said during an interview, “and it’s taking time for their suppliers – the people who produce the metal, produce the electronics, build the boats – to go service offshore wind turbines.” Magaziner said he’s confident the industry will move forward in time, and he credits Rhode Island regulators with doing a good job to protect ratepayers. Magaziner, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, plans to visit the Block Island Wind Farm in October, along with AOC and other colleagues.

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.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

 Former state Rep. LIANA CASSAR, who is now director of OASIS, a new effort supporting women and non-binary state lawmakers across the country: “The childcare market is not meeting the needs of RI families and hasn’t done so since before the pandemic. (Childcare for an infant costs on average $13,780 per year in RI. Care for a preschooler costs $11,700, and for a school-age child for after-school and summer care costs $8,684.) Now, things are likely to get worse. September 30 will be the ‘childcare cliff,’ when American Rescue Plan funding ends for childcare providers. Parents, most often mothers, are at risk of losing, or needing to leave, full-time employment, due to a lack of childcare, which will have plenty of downstream economic effects.

“We should be doing everything we can as a state to mitigate the impacts of this crisis. The burden of funding care has traditionally fallen to families, and only 10% of RI families can foot the bill. Employers directly benefit from families paying out of pocket for what should be a public good, like K-12 education. As a state, we consistently fund support for ‘small businesses,’ yet we neglect to invest in childcare or even recognize it as a vibrant, stable, and critical small business sector. Without those investments, the sector is unable to keep pace on wages, which in turn makes the providers less financially viable and in shorter supply. RI lawmakers could have strengthened the childcare infrastructure by investing in a robust workforce made up of skilled early childhood educators, with access to affordable training, who were guaranteed a livable wage.

“There have been opportunities to fund the construction and maintenance of high-quality childcare facilities. Advocates, including over two dozen organizations that make up the Right From the Start Coalition, have articulated and fought hard for these investments. If this work had been done, RI would be better prepared to ride out the rough times ahead. Investing in our children is an investment in our communities, our families, our stable and certain childcare business sector, our educational system, and our entire economy.

“The General Assembly needs to prioritize investment in our childcare sector. However, it’s going to take an active commitment from more than the General Assembly and Gov. McKee to help families weather the impacts of the childcare cliff. Waiting until the next legislative session’s allocation of budget dollars is going to be WAY too late to solve the crisis facing our families. It is a broken market, but RI has a marketplace of talent to fix it. There’s no reason we can’t emerge as the state that takes the bold, creative steps to solve the childcare crisis.”

ROBERT A. WALSH JR., former executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island: “What do Ruth Simmons, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Elon Musk have in common? It’s a trick question, as each was the subject of books that I read this month, briefly submitted for your consideration. In the just-published ‘Up Home,’ by former Brown University president Ruth Simmons (subtitled ‘A Girl’s Journey’), Simmons tells the story of her upbringing. Her words serve as a powerful reminder of the impact caring teachers can have on a student’s future and that poverty – in this case, abject poverty – is not destiny. This is not a book about her time as a successful university president (three times over) but the formative experiences that started her on that journey.

“Since I’m a ‘read the book first’ person, next on the docket was ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (a Pulitzer-winner), which served as the basis for the movie ‘Oppenheimer.’ You may know the basics of the story of the ‘father of the atomic bomb,’ but the way opponents of his outspokenness against a post-war arms race used government resources (from illegal wiretaps to falsified testimony) to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance was infuriating. At least now I can see the movie, and presumably get angry again.

“Finally, there is ‘Elon Musk,’ by Walter Isaacson – hot off the press and more than 600 pages in 95 chapters. While it would be somewhat disappointing if Musk’s fascination with this newest toy (“X”, née Twitter) set back progress in his other endeavors, ranging from his efforts at Tesla (electric cars, batteries and solar) and Space X (where his commitment to colonies on Mars is real and his company virtually serves as a private sector replacement to NASA) to robotics and artificial intelligence. Isaacson had remarkable access to Musk personally and the wide range of those who love, hate, or fear him (often combinations of the three.) This is an important book as it – hopefully – leads to the consideration of important public policy questions about the accumulation of so much power under one individual, and in the private sector generally, and understanding Musk himself should inform those debates. The recent revelation of the role one of his business services had in the war in Ukraine – and his ability to make a unilateral decision which impacted a foreign military operation – was startling. Happy reading.”

ISOLATED: “We know the cure for loneliness. So why do we suffer?”

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

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