Last week, the White House abandoned proposed changes to labor rules that might have kept young people working on farms quite a bit safer. It was a move widely characterized as a cave to political pressure from Republicans and some Big Ag-friendly Democrats.
Sarah Palin added her two cents to the public discussion by posting a note on Facebook — with her signature poetic subtlety — entitled, “If I Wanted America to Fail, I’d Ban Kids From Farm Work.” It has since been “liked” by over 8,000 people. In it she seethed:
The Obama Administration is working on regulations that would prevent children from working on our own family farms. This is more overreach of the federal government with many negative consequences. And if you think the government’s new regs will stop at family farms, think again.
Opposition to the updated regulations hinged on the argument that they would hurt family farms, stirring fears of the Feds swooping in to arrest Farmer Joe for sending Joe Jr. out to milk the cows in the morning. But the new rules would not have applied “to children working on farms owned by their parents,” as the U.S. Department of Labor clearly stated when it announced the proposed changes.
Rather, the regulations targeted specific types of high-risk work, such as pesticide and livestock handling, tobacco harvesting, and employment in grain silos. Last fall, when many child safety and labor advocates were optimistic about the proposed rules, we described the conditions these regulations were trying to change here on Grist:
[Child farm workers] often work with livestock, handle toxic pesticides, and run heavy machinery; the results are frequently catastrophic. In 2010 alone, five kids under 16 died in grain silo accidents where the corn acted like quicksand, sucking them down and suffocating them within minutes. In July, two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted by an irrigation system. According to Human Rights Watch, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that out of the 35 children who died of work-related injuries in 2010, 19 had been working in crop production.
Teen agricultural workers already operate under different standards from their counterparts bussing tables and bagging groceries — farmworkers can get a job before age 16 and put in much longer hours. Currently you only have to be 16 to perform “hazardous work” in agricultural employment, compared to 18 in other types of jobs. The new rules would not have constituted some sweeping new mandate; but by adjusting what counts as “hazardous work,” they would have created the first updates to this set of regulations since 1970.
We wouldn’t want standards for non-agricultural labor to come from an era when electric typewriters and Xerox machines represented cutting-edge technology and most female office workers wore pantyhose and pumps — so why shouldn’t we expect regulations for farm work to keep up with the times as well?
But — like Palin — people from all over the industrial agriculture world stayed on message in the media, beginning last fall, when headlines read, “Child labor change under fire in farm country” and “Labor Dept.’s overreach could threaten life on the farm.” Even somewhat progressive sources like Natural News reported that the laws would somehow “criminalize small farmers” and drive them away from the land.
And this media storm worked. The Labor Department’s statement announcing its withdrawal of the rules played directly to false claims that the regulations threatened family farms: “The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations.”
Children on family farms have always been exempt from labor regulations, the assumption being that, in addition to learning the family business, they’re probably much safer anyway when working alongside mom and pop. Nothing changes for those kids, and for now, nothing will change for the others kids, either — the ones who are four times more likely to be killed while performing farm work than those in all other industries combined — toiling under miserable conditions to support their own families and put food on America’s table.