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Over 100 Children a Year Die Working On Farms: Why Do Prominent Right-Wingers Fight Safety Regulations?

A former child farmworker and other activists are working to bring farmworker kids out of the shadows and get them the same protections as kids in other industries.

Norma Flores López has a calm, musical voice that frequently bubbles over with laughter, but she speaks with electrifying urgency when it comes to the plight of kids who work in agriculture. She knows firsthand about the brutal heat, dizzyingly high ladders, dangerous equipment and lack of safety protections they face: Flores López spent much of her teen years picking crops alongside her family as a migrant farmworker.

"When I was asked to go up on a ladder to pick apples, I wasn't given any safety training, any safety equipment, I was told just to go over there and get that ladder," said Flores López, who now directs the Children in the Fields campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) in Washington, DC. Flores López, who went on to earn a bachelor's degree, also serves as chair of the Domestic Issues committee for the Child Labor Coalition. Helping to protect farmworker kids is her vocation--but it's a particularly tough one these days.

On April 26, the US Department of Labor announced that it was scrapping what Flores López and other child farmworker advocates thought was going to be "a natural process" of updating the safety rules for kids working in agriculture. These rules had been proposed without fanfare in September 2011 as a farm labor version of the safety rules for kids in non-agricultural industries the Labor Department put out in 2010.

Sally Greenberg, co-director of the National Consumer League’s Child Labor Coalition, a network of organizations pushing to protect children in the workplace, is still fuming at the Labor Department’s decision to withdraw the rules. Calling it “a devastating setback,” Greenberg said, “The forces of misinformation and distortion won out," and “riled up a lot of people and got them very frightened--falsely--about the impact of these rules." Greenberg is referring to what a Labor Department spokesperson described as “an overwhelming number of comments on this, largely folks pushing back” on the rules.

The comments came, Greenberg said, mainly from growers' groups like the American Farm Bureau (a right-wing growers’ association) expressing fear that the new rules would be so hard to put into practice that they would effectively keep farmers' kids from working on their own parents' farms.

That was never a real threat, says Flores López, who adds that the updates were intended to protect children and teens of migrant farmworkers in rural communities who “are out there out of necessity and are pushing themselves harder than any child should, all out of the need to help make ends meet.”

A May 11 Washington Post article about the political forces that led to the rules being yanked confirms that the so-called “parental exemption” allowing kids of any age to work on their family’s own farm would have remained intact under the new rules. The growers’ groups’ main objection to the rules, then—which led to the intervention of high-profile members of Congress like Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who the same article suggests may be on Mitt Romney’s short list for running mate—was based on false information.

In fact, said Mary E. Miller, child labor specialist for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, the rules would have updated existing safety rules for kids working in agriculture that have not seen an update since 1970. NIOSH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's workplace safety and health arm, "came out with a fabulous report in 2002 with lots of updates for the child labor regulations," said Miller. "A bunch had to do with non-agricultural labor," she added, and those updated rules took effect in July of 2010. So, Miller continued, "The next obvious item was to update the agricultural child labor safety rules."

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