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

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."

The existing safety rules allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in hazardous conditions in agriculture, but not in other industries. They allow kids as young as 12 to work in the fields, picking crops like tobacco, which can cause serious health problems. “So we don't allow them to buy cigarettes until they are 18, yet we allow them to work in those fields as young as 12,” Flores López said.

The updates would have included preventing kids aged 12-17 from working in hazardous conditions--like up on the high ladders Flores López had to use--and with heavy equipment like tractors. Miller explains that tractors "cause the most deaths for workers of all ages" in agriculture. Yet, Miller said, she routinely sees kids aged 14 or 15 driving tractors after receiving "one single training course."

And kids do die while working in agriculture. "Between 1995 and 2002 there were an estimated 907 youth that died on American farms," said Flores López, citing NIOSH's data. "That's well over 100 preventable deaths each year." For young workers under the age of 16, agriculture production accounted for almost 60 percent of deaths in this age group, and 79 percent of all work-related deaths for youth ages 10 or younger occurred in agriculture, according to a 2006 report in the Journal of Agromedicine.

Many of these deaths occurred while the kids worked in some of the hazardous environments the new rules would have made off-limits, said Flores López. The updated rules would, among other things, “keep kids from working in manure pits, in grain silos,” said Flores López. Grain silos are particularly deadly places to work for workers of all ages: in one high-profile case from 2010, two youths, Wyatt Whitehead, 14, and Alejandro Pacas, 19, were trapped and asphyxiated inside a grain silo in Mount Carroll, IL. In another case in 2009, 17-year-old Cody Rigsby died after being buried alive in a grain silo in Haswell, CO. The proposed rule updates would have prohibited working in and around grain silos at any time for youth under 16 on farms and for all youth in commercial grain handling.

Why aren’t these deaths and grievous injuries causing much public outcry? “Farmworker kids are kept in the shadows and forgotten,” said Greenberg, “and nobody cares all that much about them.” Human Rights Watch is one watchdog group that does care about them. It has put together a comprehensive report on the subject, called Fields of Peril, that documents the problem of kids under 17 working unsafely in agriculture in the US. On May 7, nearly two weeks after the updated rules were withdrawn, Human Rights Watch published a scathing op-ed in The Hill that re-stated the problem in concrete terms:

“Nationwide,” it said, “hundreds of thousands of kids this year will cut the roots off onions, hoe cotton, climb tall ladders to pick oranges and apples, and drive tractors. If the past is a guide, some will be injured, some will be maimed, and some will die.”

In the absence of updated safety rules, Flores López and her fellow advocates say they will have to fall back on their long-term strategy: promoting best practices in child safety in agriculture, building a grassroots movement to protect farmworker kids and working to get the CARE Act passed.

CARE, or Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, would change and update the regulations governing child labor in agriculture to make them more closely match those governing child labor in all other industries. Right now, explained Miller, child labor regulations for agriculture are a jumble of outdated safety rules, enforcement, and penalties for negligent growers and farmers. “Historically, anyone can see that the protections for kids in agriculture have lagged behind the ones for non-agricultural [sectors],” she said.

The CARE Act, which features increased fines for child safety violations, stronger safety rules and raised age minimums for working in hazardous conditions and with heavy equipment, would “help better protect farmworker kids by making sure that all kids receive the same protections whether they work in agriculture or not,” said Flores López.

“We need a groundswell” of support to help protect farmworker kids, said Greenberg. “We need parents whose kids have been injured and killed to come forward and say this is not how children in America should be treated and we should be taking every step possible to keep them safe.”

Flores López agrees. “We need for there to be more discussion and more conversation around this issue,” she said, especially among consumers buying food at the market. “It's very difficult right now for us to be able to trace whether food includes child labor--it's not part of the American consciousness. People don't think to ask.”

The Labor Department spokesperson said the Department does intend to work with “those on both sides” to “develop public education programs that will hope to meet the initial objectives of ensuring the safety of young people working in agriculture.”

As frustrating as the safety rules update setback was for Flores López, she is not giving up on the process. “We're going to continue to find ways to work with the administration on ways to protect kids,” she said. “Our work is not done--as long as there are children out there that continue to be put in a vulnerable position."

“I’m totally in favor of kids working,” said Miller, “but it has to be age-appropriate and well-supervised. It's about finding a balance—we are the adults that have to look after the children. They have no voice, they can't vote. We have to keep them from becoming an issue related to political self-interest.”

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