Congress and White House decided to turn their back, but child labor on U.S. farms hasn't disappeared

The NBC News affiliate in California's Bay Area released last week a multi-part investigative series entitled "Children in the field: American kids pick your food."  The anchorwoman introducing the first segment said:

"They are too young to drive, work in an office, or even a local fast food joint, but thousands of them work long hours in brutal conditions to make sure we eat well, and on the cheap."

Investigative reporter Stephen Stock added:

"We talked to children who said they started working the fields when they were 8, 10 and 11 years old.  While most of us had jobs when we were teens, mowing lawns or at a grocery store...these kids are working a full day, up to 9, 10 hours a day in 100 degree heat. And it's not in some foreign country.  It's right here in California."

And it's all legal under U.S. child labor law.  The timing of the on-air investigation comes just days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed by voice vote the ‘‘Preserving America’s Family Farms Act’’ (H.R. 4157).  (A real misnomer as Rena Steinzor points out.)  If passed, the law would prohibit the U.S. Department of Labor from revising the 40 year-old regulations concerning hazardous tasks for children age 15 or younger who work in agriculture.  Such a legal prohibition isn't really needed because the Obama Labor Department already caved to industry pressure earlier this year.  In April the Administration announced it was withdrawing its plan to update the rules and punctuated its announcement that such a rule "would not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration."

Ignoring an unpopular problem doesn't make it go away.  The NBC Bay Area investigators spoke to two dozen children who work in the 20,000 square miles of California's San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.  The longest segment (7 minutes) includes snippets of an interview with a 15-year old "veteran" child picker.

"We get tired.  Our arms hurt an everything like that...It's a bit hard.  But...I have to do it."

The children mention their roles in helping to support their families because their parents' earnings alone aren't adequate.

The reporters also traveled to eastern North Carolina to observe children working in the tobacco fields.  One 13 year old girl says she doesn't wear gloves because she can do the work faster without them.   Norma Flores-Lopez of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs describes for viewers how the green tobacco leaves expose the children to nicotine which is absorbed through the skin.   One day of exposure this way, Flores-Lopez notes, is equivalent to smoking 12 cigarettes.   The regulation that the Labor Department proposed in September 2011 included a provision to protect these young workers from green tobacco sickness.  It would have prohibited children age 15 and under who are employed on non-family farms from all work involving the production and curing of tobacco.   That was part of the proposed rule that the Obama Administration scrapped abruptly three months ago.  Here was the gist of their explanation:

"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."

Hmmm....I sure didn't hear that from the farmworker parents profiled in this investigative piece.  In fact, passing on the life of a farmworker seems to be the last thing these parents want for their children.  One father says he wants his kids to go school and not have to be a work horse like him.  A mother has hopes that her sons will be able to escape the farmworker life.

One youngster talks about his farmworker job beginning at age 11, and why harvesting tomatoes is the hardest of the picking tasks.

"I think Americans are largely clueless about the labor in general that supplies their food," said Pete Aiello, the general manager of Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California.  "Or their age or their ethnicity or their legal status.  I think Americans are largely in the dark about what's going on."

The trouble is, the Obama Administration knows exactly what's going on.  They proposed to do something about it, but turned their back on these child laborers when farmers and agriculture lobbyists turned up the heat.  All of this frustrates Bay area congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) who was also interviewed for the NBC affiliate's piece:

"We judge other countries and we are blind to what our own country is doing and how we won't protect our own children."

Kudos to the NBC Bay Area's investigation team for exposing a reality that policymakers have chosen to ignore.


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Is there nothing in current law, or on anybody's table that can distinguish between kids used simply as cheap/free labor and kids who are part of a farming family and are working to learn & support the family business? I can see the difference between a corporate farm and a family farm, but don't know how to put such recognition of difference into language that makes sense and would be suitable for legislation. I also know there's a big difference between 13 year old Bubba Junior driving the tractor in Dad's alfalfa or wheat fields in South Dakota versus 13 year old Jose picking vegetables by hand in MassiveAgriCorp's fields in California. Why cannot our regulations recognize these differences appropriately?

By MuleHeadJoe (not verified) on 08 Aug 2012 #permalink

The current child labor regulations for youngsters working in agriculture already give an exemption for a kid working on his family farm (Bubba Junior driving Dad's tractor.) That current exemption is apparently not broad enough for the groups and individuals who opposed the proposed safety improvements. They argued that in today's agricultural industry, a farm can have a group of owners so kids are not just working for their parents. I'm sure there could have been a way for a new regulation to make certain distinctions, but since the Obama Administration promised to never pursue these rules again, rationale thinkers won't have the chance to help develop a reasonable new regulation.