During the 2012 presidential election, Newt Gingrich said in a GOP debate that we should fire janitors and have the kids clean the toilets in order to teach them some responsibility. Others equated removing restrictions on the age a minor could work as a character builder akin to a summer job cutting lawns. After all, how is a 14-year-old working 40 hours a week any different than spending 40 hours a week in school and extracurricular activities?
This was happening amid another fight against child labor laws that had been going on since the summer of 2011. In August of that year, the Department of Labor proposed updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to include stronger protections for child labor. The new guidelines would expand the types of industries and work deemed hazardous and off limits to anyone under the age of 18. It also would bring parity between agricultural and non-agricultural child labor provisions already in the act.
There are few child labor laws covering the nearly 500,000 children that work on family-run farms. Another 300,000 children work as field hands, some as young as 12 years old. Field hands can perform “hazardous” work as young as 16, jobs that are prohibited in other industries until age 18. These minors can work up to 70 hours per week on summer breaks – even at 12 years old – and still not be in violation of the law. Most of these children, including those on family farms, work on farms that are either contracted with or run by large corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and tobacco giants like R.J. Reynolds.
The Nation’s in-depth investigation into minor agricultural workers reveals the devastating effects of lax regulation and oversight for child labor in the industry. There is very little data on injury and deaths of children because there is no governmental agency in charge of collecting it. During her investigation, Mariya Strauss was able to find 39 cases of injury or death in the previous 18 months. She admits that this list is not complete, as she was unable to get any concrete data from the Labor Department, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration or regional and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration offices. In the end, she relied largely on local news reports and the files of farm worker advocates and researchers.
She shares the story of how Michael Steele, who had been helping out local farmers in his small town in Missouri since he was 13-years-old, was killed this past summer when he lost his balance and fell off the tractor he was driving and was crushed under its wheel before it came to a stop. He was just 15 years old. Enrique was also a seasoned ranch hand, having worked on a cattle ranch in Idaho for almost two years. The 14-year-old was not old enough to drive, but had long been driving the pickups used to haul the alfalfa and move irrigation lines from field to field. It was while trying to fix one of the trucks that he was killed in a freak accident in April.
The hazardous tasks listing of the FSLA has not been updated since 1970. It allows 14- and 15-year-olds who had completed 90 hours of certified training to operate heavy machinery, such as tractors. The rules proposed by the Labor Department in 2011 removed that exemption, stating that while these teens had the technical knowledge to operate the machinery, studies had shown that they lacked the developmental maturity to continually operate them in a safe manner while working. It also prohibited 14- and 15-year-olds from operating any tractors that were not equipped with rollover protection structures and seatbelts.
If these two provisions had been put into effect, Michael and Enrique would possibly still be alive today.
In a companion report in the same Nation issue, Gabriel Thompson reported on the horrific conditions of workers as young as 12 working in tobacco fields. He, too, found there is also no clear data of how many minors work in tobacco, a job known for exposing workers to toxic pesticides and nicotine amounts that are equivalent to smoking 36 cigarettes a per day. He relays stories of children as young as 12 suffering from the so-called “green tobacco sickness,” which involved dizziness, blurred vision, severe headaches and vomiting. It is caused by the absorption of nicotine into the skin from wet tobacco, a daily occurrence due to the heat and humidity. These children are at risk of long term effects of nicotine and pesticide exposure, including kidney and liver damage.
The proposed rules would have prohibited anyone under the age of 18 working in tobacco fields.
By the time the Republican presidential candidates were calling for the end of child labor laws, the American Farm Bureau was months into a campaign to stop the new rules. When the comment period opened for the new rules on September 1, 2011, the American Farm Bureau, along with trade groups representing various agricultural producers, began their assault. They started a letter writing campaign and bombarded the department’s website with thousands of comments about how the rules would hurt the small family-owned farms.
The campaign worked well in the rural communities where anti-government sentiment was part of the culture. They resented the idea that they would not be able to hand down the family farming tradition to their children, allowing them to work in the fields as soon as they could reach the steering wheel in the tractor. The safety of their children – and their workers – was their responsibility and they didn’t need a bunch of government regulators snooping on how they ran their farms.
The trouble was, the new rules didn’t apply to them.
The specific exemptions for family owned and/or operated farms were still in effect. The new recommendations only applied to hired hands that were minors, like Michael and Enrique. However, the rules clarified what would qualify as a parental exemption. It now only included those minors that worked on farms and ranches that were “wholly owned” by the parents. Many of the corporate farms have joint agreements with smaller farmers, making the parent a part owner. This allowed the corporate giants to qualify for the family owned and operated exemptions for child labor laws. As Strauss points out in her report, the Farm Bureau touts itself as the voice of family farmers and ranchers, but has an agenda that is more in line of the giants in agribusiness, like DuPont and Monsanto.
By early 2012, the narrative of how the government wanted to destroy struggling farmers had taken hold. In April, the Labor Department issued a memorandum, indicating that it was dropping the proposed rules regarding minor agricultural workers under the age of 16, including the change in the parental exemption rules. It clearly stated that the Obama Administration was supportive of the rural way of life and would not be pursuing any changes for the duration of the administration.
At the time of the memo, election season was well under way.
Even though President Obama won the election, there has been no indication that the administration will rescind its promise to not make any changes. While the abandoning of the rules may have proved to be good political maneuvering, hundreds of thousands of children are still working on farms and ranches with little to no protection or oversight, suffering silently as they risk injury or death.
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