This time last week, many of us in the public health and workers’ rights community were still in shock by the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw its proposed regulation to protect children who work on farms. Others weren’t really surprised and simply chalked it up to the Administration caving into energetic attacks by the American Farm Bureau, Republicans in Congress (and some Democrats, too) and anti-regulation spinmaster radio hosts. The proposal recommended that children aged 15 years and younger—who are being paid as employees—-be prohibited from doing some of the MOST dangerous tasks on farms. The 13 hazardous tasks included working in grain silos (where they can be fatally engulfed in grain), and working in a manure pit (where they can inhale deadly gases, pass out and drown in animal waste.) For some of the 13 hazardous tasks, child workers aged 14 and 15 would have been allowed to do some of these tasks if they received special training. Is that so unreasonable?
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is well known for her passionate speeches about the Department’s commitment to address abuses of our nation’s most vulnerable workers, whether they are veterans and older Americans unable to get jobs, or immigrant workers who may not understand their rights to a safe workplace. When this proposal to protect children working in U.S. agriculture was issued last fall, Solis pronounced that U.S. children employed in agricultural jobs are some of the most vulnerable workers, and the rules on the books were 40 years old and seriously out-of-date. The senior official responsible for the proposal put it even more eloquently, noting that we don’t live in an ideal world where all employers assure the safety of their workers, including elementary school-age workers. Therefore, special rules to protect children are necessary.
Suddenly last week, the voices of reason for the protection of child workers on U.S. farms reversed themselves. Secretary Solis’ Labor Department withdrew the proposal and declared last Thursday:
To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration. (emphasis added)
Reading that “to be clear” was bad enough, but then they had to lock the door and throw away the key with the “duration of the Obama Administration” phrase.
I guess we know when this Administration changes it tune, they mean it. So much so that they are now trying to pretend that they never made any proposal to protect young workers on U.S.
Get this, if you go to the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour website, there’s not a nugget, not a morsel, not a crumb of information about this proposed rule.
If you click into the child labor-specific page you’ll see information about a rule finalized in 2010 to protect youngsters who work for pay in other industries (e.g., restaurants, landscaping, amusement parks, childcare centers, etc.) but not a peep about what the Labor Department wanted to do to protect the same kind of kids who are working in agriculture. Does the Labor Department think it can just erase history by removing all evidence of this proposal? Is it so embarassed to be the voice for children? For goodness sake, these are kids in rural America who may be working to help their families make ends meet, or pay for clothes or school supplies.
The documents that the Obama Administration’s Labor Department has scrubbed from its Wage and Hour Division website include the following:
*a side-by-side analysis illustrating the difference between the current (inadequate) rules for children working in agriculture, and the proposed changes;
*a factsheet explaining the proposed rule;
*a document responding to misunderstandings and/or misinformation about the proposed rule, called Five Facts; and,
*the proposed regulation published in the Federal Register in September 2011 (which is, of course, still available from the Government Printing Office.)
We’ll be storing these and other documents related to this proposed rule on the DefendingScience.com website.
If anyone has any insight as to how or why these documents disappeared from the DOL website, or who ordered they be removed, please leave a comment.
Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH appreciates the assistance of Mary Miller, RN, a child labor and young worker specialist at the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries, for her contributions to this post. Mary’s research on the history of the agricultural hazardous occupations orders was published earlier this year in the Journal of Agromedicine.