The safety of child workers on farms was dealt a harsh blow April 19th when the Obama administration unexpectedly announced that it was withdrawing long-awaited occupational child safety rules for agriculture. The National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs, has been a leader in the fight for protections against hazardous work in agriculture—well known among safety experts as the most dangerous industry that large numbers of children are allowed to work in.
Each year, 85 to 100 youth die on farms, mostly through accidents on family farms. In 2010, twelve of the 16 children killed while working for wages died performing agricultural work. “There are specific jobs on farms that can be incredibly dangerous for children and teens,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director and the co-chair of the CLC. “The Department of Labor rules addressed those dangerous farm tasks.”
The proposed agricultural rules, called hazardous occupations orders, had not been updated by the Department of Labor for more than four decades. They specifically targeted the farm jobs that kill the most workers: driving tractors, handling stressed or enraged livestock, working from heights, and laboring in grain facilities. There were 15 rules in all.
Children 14 and 15 would still be allowed to drive a tractor but they would be required to take a comprehensive safety course instead of the superficial course current regulations allow. They would not be allowed to castrate or brand animals or work from heights above six feet because of the dangers posed by falls.
“They are long over-due, badly needed protections,” said Sally Greenberg. “These rules emanated from painstaking research conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that tracked injuries and fatalities among youth workers. We estimate these common sense rules would have saved 50-100 children over the next decade.”
The proposed rules exempted children working for their parents on a family farm, but that didn’t stop the Farm Lobby from complaining that the rules “would kill the family farm.” Kids would not be able to work for wages on incorporated family farms or for uncles and grandparents, the lobby charged. DOL Secretary Hilda Solis announced months ago that kids working on a parent’s farm would be exempted even if that farm was incorporated and when the protests continued she said publically that the “parental exemption” would be “re-proposed” to exempt children working on relatives’ farms.
The fact-checking web site Politifact looked into the arguments of the rules opponents and declared them to be “misleading” and “mostly false.”
These clarifications had little impact and a misinformation campaign against the rules continued unabated. Hundreds of articles appeared in the farm press, suggesting that the rules were over-reaching and suggesting that they would prohibit children from using flashlights or water hoses. NCL, the CLC, and its members and campaign partners–the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, Human Rights Watch, First Focus and the American Federation of Teachers—responded with facts to correct the avalanche of inaccuracies.
CLC members organized a press conference that featured gripping testimony from the aunt of Alex Pacas, a 19-year-old who suffocated in a grain bin that also claimed the life of a 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread. They reminded the public about the two 17-year-olds who lost their legs in a grain augur last summer. The proposed rules would have prevented minors from working in grain facilities, responsible for 26 deaths in 2010. The CLC, its members and advocacy partners organized the community of support for the rules and sent Secretary Solis a support letter with over 155 groups signed on. The list included the country’s major unions, nearly all farmworker groups, and dozens of child welfare organizations.
“Despite our best efforts, the opponents of these common sense rules portrayed the government as bent on destroying the family farm,” said Reid Maki, coordinator of the CLC.
Our campaign to support the proposed rules was pleased to welcome two Missouri farmers, Bryce Oates and Jake Davis, who reminded fellow farmers how dangerous agriculture is for child workers and argued that the rules were badly needed. They said the protections would have little impact on the ability of farmers to train the next generation of farmers, and they upbraided farm industry opponents for creating fear through a misinformation campaign that ultimately endangered farm children.
In the week before the rules were withdrawn, a conservative blogger went so far as to say the rules would prevent chores on farms. The charge was blatantly untrue, but within a few hours it was retweeted 2,000 times. Even former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin weighed in with inflammatory rhetoric that the rules represented an attempt to “destroy America.” The bigger the exaggeration, the more play it received in social media.
With conservative members of Congress echoing many of these claims, the DOL unfortunately felt that it had to withdraw the rules and that they would not be reissued during the Obama administration. “It was devastating news for our community,” noted Maki.
Out of this debate came some very useful perspectives. Writing in a New York Times online op-ed May 7, 2012, historian Marjorie Elizabeth Wood found parallels to a misinformation campaign used to defeat child labor reforms championed by the National Consumers League in the 1920s: “…by shifting the debate to red herrings — the supposed downfall of the private farm, and correspondingly of parental authority and rural ways of life — the opposition managed, as it has again now, to distract us from the real problem of exploitative child labor on farms.”
There was also enlightened perspective from one of the most important farm state newspapers, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, argued in an editorial, “When Political Rhetoric Trumps Child Safety,’ that the abandonment of “the entire safety reform effort because of public outcry from special-interest groups put political gain above children’s well-being, and that should never be the case.”
“Despite this painful setback,” said Greenberg. “NCL and the CLC will press on and continue the fight to protect children working in agriculture. As Martin Luther King once said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’ Children who work on farms deserve protection.