Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Child labor and US farms

That’s right, in the United States, children as young as twelve can legally work in the fields. They can pick your berries and even drive a tractor. But recently, a slew of articles have been published about new child labor regulations in the U.S.; you can find them here, here, here and here. Even The Daily Yonder featured the story in one of their Tuesday Roundups.

The media interest in this issue has been triggered by new rules from the U.S. Department of Labor, rules aimed at improving safety for children in the fields. The new rules include a ban on farm workers under the age of 16 handling most “power-driven equipment” (such as tractors) and from contributing to the “cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.” Further, it would prohibit children under the age of 18 from working “in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.” According to a report called "Occupational injuries among young workers," most youth work fatalities occurred in agriculture and about two thirds of these fatalities were attributed to transportation accidents, particularly accidents, which occurred either by truck or by tractor.

In fact between 1993 and 2002, tractor accident counted for a quarter of all youth worker fatalities. The proponents of the legislation say these changes are in response to these shocking statistics and insist that they are “not talking about the children of growers, but children employed as farm workers.” Secretory of Labor Hilda Solis insisted this would not apply to children who work on farms operated or owned by parents but rather is to protect “Children employed in agriculture [who] are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.” Many farmer groups and rural-state politicians disagree. They are up in arms about these proposed changes as they feel it will stop many farming families from employing their underage children.

Rachel Leven’s piece in The Hill takes a refreshing rural-urban perspective on the situation. A group of more than 70 House representatives sent a letter to DOL indicating the rule “challenges the conventional wisdom of what defines a family farm in the United States.” In response to the law, Representative Denny Rehberg states
You’ve got a president of the United States … from Chicago, you’ve got a director for secretary of Labor who’s pushing this from Los Angeles, and you have to think to yourself, do you have any idea what it’s like not just to run an agricultural business in a rural state … but to raise a family in one?
Leven summarizes this quote as mean that Rehberg feels these “proposals are coming from officials who do not understand rural life.” While there are exemptions for family run farms, these exemptions would not apply if parents did not full ownership (which is a common situation today). Further, many feel the necessary precautions are already in place. For example, current regulations allow children to operate heavy equipment if they have taken a safety. A letter written opposing this regulation and signed by more than 30 Nebraska state senators further insisted that "[d]oing away with this exemption will not only reduce the number of youth getting proper training on operating power equipment, but will deny them the experience and responsibility associated with learning to operate the equipment safely and effectively." Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard however insists these farm regulations are not a rural-versus-urban issue. Rather, she feels the “focus needs to be that there are an estimated 400,000 children working on farms that are not owned by family members and those children are not being protected by our current labor laws.”

I am personally conflicted. On the one hand, I support farmers, their sustainability, and their unique understanding of how best to live and thrive. However, I cannot get over the BPL analysis (weighing the burden of taking a precaution against the probability times the gravity of loss if the precaution is not taken) that I learned in my first year law school torts class. The statistics make me believe that the risk is simply too high, and the farming communities need to find alternative ways to teach the next generation of farmers that does not put our nation's youth at fatal risk.

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