Critics say 'misinformation' killed rules to restrict child labor on farms
WASHINGTON — When the Labor Department did a turnaround last week and announced that it had scuttled new rules limiting child labor on farms, members of Missouri’s congressional delegation hailed the step as a victory for common sense.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., denounced the proposed rules as “ridiculous government overreach,” while Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said their demise meant that “Missouri farm families will have one less thing to worry about.” Both lawmakers had backed a bill to block the planned rules, which Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, also opposed.
But more than two dozen consumer, labor and child welfare groups complained this week that President Barack Obama’s administration had caved in to political demands resulting from a misinformation campaign. “We are deeply disappointed,” said Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, which represents 28 advocacy organizations that aim to protect children from exploitative or dangerous work.
“There was a lot of misinformation and fear about the scope of the rules,” Maki said in an interview. While the revised rules would have allowed children to continue working on their parents’ farms, the regulations would have barred kids under 16 from using power-driven farm equipment (such as tractors) and banned youths under 18 from working in feed lots, grain silos or stockyards.
An estimated 300,000 U.S. children under age 16 work in some capacity in agriculture, and statistics indicate that farm labor is the most dangerous line of work for kids aged 15 to 17. Last year, a dozen of the 16 children in that age group who were fatally injured on jobs were working in crop production, federal statistics indicate. Also, loopholes in outmoded federal rules allow migrant kids to work long hours for hire, critics say.
But critics contended that the planned rules would have threatened a way of life and endangered farming organizations, such as 4-H Clubs. “These regulations would have an enormous impact on farm families,” said Chris Chinn, who along with her husband Kevin owns the 160-acre Chinn Hog Farm in Clarence, Mo.
Testifying in February to the House Small Business Committee, Chinn asserted that the Labor Department “does not appreciate or grasp what it is like to live in rural America, nor does the department seem to have much respect for the ability of farmers and ranchers to look out for the well-being of their children.”
Such arguments rankle Jake Davis, a farmer in mid-Missouri who also co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Columbia. He told the Beacon this week that he did not think the revised rules — especially after exemptions and loopholes were added this year — would have had much of an impact on family farms or agriculture educational groups such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America.
“The misleading ‘talking points’ from the agribusiness machine worked,” said Davis, who along with his business partner, Bryce Oates, had advocated the new child-labor rules in a series of articles because they were “on the side of protecting children.”
Instead of a serious debate, they wrote, opponents of the rules unleashed ads, talk radio shows and social media that claimed that the rules would lead to “the end of rural culture . . . To hear their (false) version of the rules, 4H and FFA programs will be shut down. Farm kids won’t be allowed to help with the chores. Farm country will be de-populated by an armed group of thuggish cops that put farmers behind bars for having their children collect eggs in the henhouse like they have for generations.”
As for the Missouri members of Congress who backed the successful effort to kill the regulations, Davis said “it looks to me like they caved in” to political pressures.
Lawmakers: Rules would have altered farm life
But lawmakers argue that the proposed rules defied common sense. Growing up on a dairy farm in southeast Missouri, Blunt did chores as a child and appreciates the family-farm culture that encourages everyone to chip in.
An early opponent of the proposed new rules, Blunt was among the 44 senators who cosponsored the Preserving America’s Family Farm Act, which would have scuttled the new rules. Other backers of the bill included McCaskill and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
“I’m glad the Obama administration finally heeded our calls and backed down from this ridiculous government overreach,” Blunt said in a statement. “Having grown up working on farms, I understand just how absurd this rule is for our nation’s agriculture industry.” He argued that the rules “would not only hurt job creators, but it would prevent the next generation of agriculture leaders from learning critical skills.”
McCaskill said she was “glad to see the bipartisan work to instill some common sense has finally paid off.... Federal agencies in Washington shouldn’t be deciding whether and how our kids and grandkids can work on their family farms and ranches where the values of hard work and responsibility are learned every day.”
U.S. House members representing rural Missouri also had opposed the rules. Among them was Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, who had backed an effort to cut off Labor Department funds to implement any such rules. “Had this poorly conceived rule gone forward, it would have fundamentally altered the way agriculture has been practiced in our country for generations and undermined parental oversight of farm youth,” he said.
Luetkemeyer, who owns a farm, said in a statement that he knows firsthand “how dangerous agricultural work can be, and I believe that the parents, grandparents and other caregivers are more concerned about the safety of our youth on the farm than the government.”
Another Missouri lawmaker who grew up on a family farm is Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, who chairs the House Small Business Committee, which held a hearing focusing on how the rules would have hurt farms and small business.
“Restricting family chores and a child’s ability to learn the trade of their parents by regulation is a primary example of agency overreach, and I will continue to provide the necessary checks and balances to ensure similar efforts fail,” Graves said.
But the family farm argument rings false with advocates of the new rules. “Children of farmers still would have been able to do any job on the farm at any age” under the revised rules, said Maki. The “parental exemption” also was being expanded to include the farms owned by children’s close relatives, he said.
And not all farm state lawmakers opposed the regulations. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he was “disappointed that the administration chose to walk away from regulations that were, at their core, about protecting children.”
Concern for migrant children working long hours
Proponents of tougher regulations say the big safety problems aren’t with kids doing daily chores but with young teens doing work for hire, as well as with migrant workers’ children, some of whom are allowed under current law to work 10-hour days at age 12.
“Agriculture is by far the most dangerous industry that large numbers of teens are allowed to work in,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League and a co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition. She added that opponents’ “all-out campaign of misinformation and distortion . . . will have an impact for years to come.”
In fact, the CLC estimates that the withdrawal of the work rules for agriculture will lead to the loss of 50 to 100 lives over the next decade. More than 150 advocacy groups had endorsed the child safety rules, citing recent incidents such as last summer’s accident in which two Oklahoma youths lost legs while operating a grain auger.
Between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms, advocacy groups say, and more than four in 10 of the work-related fatalities of young workers were in agriculture. About half of the fatalities in agriculture during that period involved youth under age 15. One reason, experts say, is that more heavy machinery and dangerous chemicals are now used in agriculture than when child labor rules were issued.
“The children of farm workers will continue to be put in jeopardy to harvest America’s food. The rules withdrawal will leave them exposed and unprotected,” contends Norma Flores Lopez, who directs the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP).
Zama Coursen-Neff, a Human Rights Watch member who is the CLC’s deputy children's rights director, alleged in a statement that the administration had “caved in to Big Agriculture and its allies in Congress.... Instead of protecting child farm workers, the Labor Department will look the other way when children get crushed, suffocated, and poisoned on the job.”
In withdrawing the proposed rules late last week, the Labor Department said it was responding to thousands of complaints about their potential impact on small farms and added that “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.” The statement added:
“Instead, the departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders — such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America, and 4-H — to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.”
Even so, advocates of stricter rules on child farm labor do not plan to give up, Maki said, although a new strategy will be needed. Some advocated support bills in Congress to raise the age at which children could work in agriculture and tighten safety rules.
Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, suggested in a statement that “members of Congress who are committed to putting children’s lives ahead of politics should overrule this decision by demanding legislation ... that increases protections for children working on farms.”