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A Legal Loophole Plays a Key Role in the Deaths of Teenage Farmworkers

People think tend of child labor a thing of the past in the United States -- but in the agriculture industry, it's still a potential deadly occupation.

Photo Credit: Khankasem


This piece originally appeared in The Nation magazine, a project of The Nation Institute, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Michael Steele, a gregarious kid whose friends sometimes called him Bubba, had recently shot up from chubby middle-schooler to a teen with a six-foot-three, 185-pound frame. For the last couple of summers, beginning when he was just 13, he had worked chopping wood, selling his garden vegetables and hauling hay for local farmers. Michael, who shared a home in the tiny town of Frankford, Missouri, with his mother and sister, had his eyes on a single goal. "He saved up all his money for a truck," his mother, Dena Steele, told me.

"He went from playing video games 24/7 to working all the time. Even when one of his friends or his girlfriend wanted to hang out, he told them, 'No, I have to work.'"

The truck Michael wanted was a blue 2002 Dodge Ram pickup with a Cummins diesel engine, the kind you see on rural roads with custom alterations like giant wheels or chromed exhaust pipes curving up from the sides of the cab. Michael’s mind was so fixed on this truck that he’d begun to build his life dreams around it, setting his sights on a vocational program in diesel mechanics. 

By last summer, Michael had saved up $7,000 from his modest farm wages, but he didn’t live to get his Dodge Ram. He went out the afternoon of July 1 with a friend, 17-year-old Matt McGlasson, to earn just a little more, moving hay bales for a horse farmer who is a cousin of his grandfather's.

Michael climbed high up into the driver’s seat on a 1954 International Harvester tractor, the same model his grandfather had taught him on—a tractor built before seat belts came along. It had a long flatbed trailer, 10 to 15 feet, hitched to its rear for carrying hay bales. 

McGlasson rode on the empty trailer, his back to Michael. The gravel road to the hay field was dusty but even, free of potholes. But somehow Michael lost his balance. McGlasson told the Highway Patrol at the scene: "I was sitting on the back of the trailer facing north. I heard him yell and saw he was holding on to, I think, the back of the seat. I stood up and seen him let go and fall." 

Michael had fallen to the left side, onto the roadway. McGlasson reacted fast, clambering along the trailer to the tractor's gears to stop it. But the tractor continued, driverless, for a crucial moment, long enough for the left wheels and axle of the flatbed to crush Michael's chest. He died at the scene. He was just 15.

People think of child labor as being a thing of the past in the United States, and to work most jobs kids do have to be at least 16. But from the start, the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, treated farmwork differently. In agriculture, kids as young as 12 can work legally. Provisions governing dangerous work are different in agriculture, too. The Labor Department has a list of "hazardous occupations" that kids can't do until they turn 18; in agriculture, they can do them at 16, even though federal officials have found that farmworker youth are at "high risk" for fatal injuries. And that hazards list hasn’t been updated since 1970.

Last year, that was about to change. In late 2011, the Labor Department, based on research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), had proposed an updated list of hazardous occupations in agriculture that would be off limits to kids under 16. These included working near manure pits or inside grain silos (the latter had trapped at least 51 workers in 2010, more than half of whom died), using power machinery, working outdoors in dangerously hot weather, climbing tall ladders, working with certain livestock, harvesting tobacco, and driving large farm vehicles or trucks on certain roads, as Michael had been doing.