NEW BEDFORD — Immigrants working in the city’s seafood industry have a new ally.

The Department of Labor’s Boston and Providence field offices were in New Bedford’s North End last week, formalizing an alliance with the city’s seafood processors and other “immigrant and low-wage workers in southern New England.”

The alliance is aimed at addressing workplace safety and educating workers of their labor rights. It was signed between the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT), a group that advocates for New Bedford’s many immigrant workers.


“OSHA will inform workers that they have the right to speak up about hazards in their workplace without fear of retaliation, regardless of immigration status,” said Kristen Rubino, OSHA’s assistant regional administrator for whistleblower programs.

The agreement was signed after a turbulent spring for New Bedford’s seafood processors. Amid an effort to organize the largely immigrant workforce, where workers are fighting for better pay and improved safety conditions, there have been sweeping layoffs at multiple processing plants.

A watershed moment came in March, when Eastern Fisheries, a major seafood processor in New Bedford, cut ties with its main staffing agency, effectively laying off as many as 100 workers. The company said it was restructuring and offered to rehire workers after properly screening their eligibility to legally work in the United States.

In addition to OSHA executives, the meeting was attended by state Rep. Chris Hendricks. Credit: Gerardo Beltrán Salinas / Petarenapro
New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliveira also attended. Credit: Gerardo Beltrán Salinas / Petarenapro

But some employees described the move as retaliation aimed at stifling the labor movement within the company. Some workers said they were undocumented and have worked at the company for as long as seven years, through various staffing agencies. At the time, the workers were asking to be paid a minimum of $16 per hour and for the company to increase its safety standards.

The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating the incident after a complaint was filed by the law firm Justice At Work, which in recent years has provided legal services to CCT, seafood processors and other low-wage industries in New Bedford.

The alliance with OSHA is the most recent step in what it describes as the Labor Department’s commitment to ensure all workers, regardless of immigration status, are guaranteed adequate workplace safety.

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Adrian Ventura, director of CCT, said the alliance with OSHA “will help us reduce the number of workers injured on the job in the New Bedford area, including the many employed in the seafood processing industry.”

The meeting on Thursday was held at the CCT headquarters in the North End. The storefront office, which serves as the nerve center of the seafood processors’ labor movement, was filled with about 50 workers, most of them from Central America. In addition to OSHA executives, the meeting was attended by state Rep. Chris Hendricks and New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliveira.

There was a moment of silence for seafood processors who have died on the job in recent years. The most recent is William Couto, a processor for clam company Sea Watch International, who died in 2019 after his clothes became entangled in machinery.

“To have OSHA here … to come here and sign a formal agreement, with this organization and with this community, is astronomical,” said Hendricks. He later added he has represented workers in workplace injury settlements, specifically people who lost fingers or hands at a New Bedford tire recycling plant. He also said he has been coordinating with U.S. Rep. Bill Keating to secure temporary work visas for those involved in active NLRB investigations.

The agreement initiates education for workers to understand their labor rights and training for workers to identify and prevent workplace hazards. It also assists OSHA’s mission of workplace safety by having the workers share information with the agency, which will provide insight for the agency to shape regulations.

OSHA has been entering similar agreements with labor organizations in other parts of the country. In mid-June, OSHA committed to a similar alliance with the Mexican Consulate in Dallas. Later in the month, it partnered with national trade organizations to protect construction workers.

The alliance “will help enhance our efforts to reach southern New England’s immigrant and low-wage workers to inform them of workplace hazards, as well as their rights to a safe and healthy workplace,” said OSHA Area Director James Mulligan. “Alliance agreements provide both parties with the ability to use industry and professional resources to make workplaces safe for all involved.”

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