by Kim Krisberg

Norma Flores Lopez knows what it’s like to be a young farmworker. She grew up in south Texas, migrating north with her family every year to places like Michigan and Iowa to pick produce. At 8 years old, she was accompanying her parents into the fields, and by age 12 she was officially on the books as a farm employee.

She knows first-hand what better safety regulations would mean for children and young people working in agriculture — the country’s most dangerous industry according to the National Safety Council. And only a few weeks ago, better working conditions did seem within reach thanks to proposed federal rules aimed at reducing the risk of injury and death among child farm employees younger than 16. More than 300,000 young people are hired to work on non-family farms every year.

“One life lost of a child is one too many,” said Lopez, who today serves as director of the Children in the Fields Campaign, a program of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs that works, in part, to get child farmworkers out of the fields and into schools. “We really do think it’s necessary that rules are put in place to ensure that all kids are safe.”

The proposed Department of Labor rules wouldn’t have banned the practice of hiring child employees or even been applied to very small farms or to parents who want their own children to work the farm. What it would have done was bar child employees from doing some of agriculture’s most dangerous tasks, such as working in manure pits and grain silos or picking tobacco leaves. (Manure pits are dangerous because workers can be overcome by fumes and drown; workers in silos can be engulfed in grain and suffocated; and picking tobacco leaves can expose children to the nicotine equivalent of 12 cigarettes each day).

In a business sector with a child fatality rate four times that of other industries, it would seem like a no-brainer. Who would oppose protecting children — children as young as 12?

Turns out, plenty of people — people with deep pockets to spend lobbying against the safety rules. So in a move that shocked many health and safety advocates, the Obama administration officially withdrew the rules in April, bowing to highly partisan and patently false claims that the child safety rules would destroy the family farm. In their messaging, opponents consistently conjured up images of the idyllic small family farm as opposed to the massive agribusinesses that the rules would have actually affected. (For more background info on what the proposed rules would have changed, check out these earlier posts.)

“We were disappointed to see (the Obama administration) giving credit to the misinformation out there,” Lopez told me. “We did not expect an issue like child safety to be such a partisan issue. At the end of the day, these rules were just trying to save children from getting hurt.”

‘We were outraged’

Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice, said the withdrawal of the proposed child safety rules was a complete surprise — “we had no hint it was going to happen.”

“To be honest, we were outraged,” Ruiz told me. “And not just by the action, but the way that it was done…the statement the administration released sort of adopted the language of agribusiness and dismissed the concerns of advocates.”

She said it’s important to keep in mind that the rules would have simply brought agriculture in line with other industries.

“There shouldn’t be disparities between agriculture and other industries,” she said. “The idea of agriculture as mostly being a family farm is just not true. Agribusiness is where most of these kids are employed — it’s a business just like any other. And agriculture is already exempt from so many regulations — talk about agriculture being over-regulated is ridiculous.”

Ruiz noted that young farmworkers not only face acute health risks, such as injuries from tractor accidents, but long-term health impacts from exposures to chemical and pesticides. The withdrawn rules would have prohibited farm employees younger than 15 from handling, mixing and applying pesticides.

According to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Wisconsin, the agricultural sector is home the second-highest fatality rate among youth workers at 21.3 per 100,000 compared to 3.6 per 100,000 across all industries. And in 2009, about 2,585 household youth were injured while doing farm work. Youth agricultural injuries cost society about $1 billion a year, the center reported. Human Rights Watch reports that the risk of injury and death falls disproportionately on poor Hispanic children, who represent the majority of child farmworkers. Unfortunately, many such injuries simply go undocumented.

“Under-reporting is a huge problem,” said Sammy Almashat, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “In the case of child workers, they’re even more vulnerable than the rest of the worker population…Many of these families are very poor and the child’s work is essential. There’s a subtle pressure against workers reporting injuries.”

Almashat noted that what’s been lost in the child safety debate is the fact that child labor is even still legal within the industry, pointing to a 75-year-old legal loophole that eliminated child labor within every industry except agriculture.

“What made sense in 1937, certainly doesn’t make sense today,” he said.

Going forward

Despite the abrupt withdrawal of the child safety rules, Barbara Lee said she’s optimistic that positive change will come.

Director of the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, Lee said that while significant funds have been invested to address injury and death among child farm employees, “not any one (intervention) alone has been demonstrated to be really effective in reducing injuries, so we think it’s a combination of many things together.” Lee noted that rates for nonfatal injuries among child farmworkers have decreased, through death rates have not.

“There’s no simple fix in any of this,” she said. “It’s so complicated and there’s so many variances in agriculture.”

When Lee and her colleagues examine what works best to protect kids on farms, it’s not necessarily regulatory or federal policy — it’s organizational policy, she said. An example would be a state farm bureau encouraging its members who employ children to adopt voluntary safety guidelines.

Such organizational policy can also help protect the children of adult farmworkers from accompanying their parents to work and being exposed to agricultural dangers. For instance, the center’s “Blueprint for Protecting Children in Agriculture: The 2012 National Action Plan” tells the story of Florida’s Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides childcare and family services to more than 8,000 children of migrant and seasonal workers at 75 different sites and actively engages with the agribusiness community.

“The burden is now going to be back on farm organizations to do a better job and invest more of their own attention and funds into promoting safe practices,” Lee said.

However, there is debate among advocates on the effectiveness of voluntary approaches.

Zama Cousen-Neff of Human Rights Watch warns in a blog post that “voluntary farm safety rules have been tried and have failed to keep children from dying at disproportionate rates.”

For Lopez, at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, the withdrawal of the safety rules means that child workers will needlessly get injured or die during the upcoming growing season. She said she hopes the Obama administration reconsiders its decision.

“Many people think of child labor as these really horrid conditions that are happening abroad,” she said. “But what a lot of folks don’t realize is that you can find very similar situations right here in our own backyard.”

To learn more about child farmworkers, visit http://afop.org/children-in-the-fields. Also, check out this video about U.S. child farmworkers from Human Rights Watch.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade.