Yet when the Labor Department introduced the proposed rules in September, several members of Congress, including Senators John Thune and Jerry Moran and Representative Tom Latham, claimed they would hurt family farms and agricultural training, and introduced bills to block the new rules. The pressure on the department—and the misinformation—was intense. The claims were just wrong: the proposed rules didn’t apply to family-owned or -operated farms and in any case, rural communities don’t depend on children being able to do jobs likely to injure and kill them. Children could still work on farms—they just couldn’t perform the most dangerous tasks. Job training shouldn’t require children to risk their health and their lives.
Child labor laws are already far more lax in agriculture than in any other sector. US law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to work on farms under hazardous conditions, while the minimum age elsewhere is 18. Kids under 14 can’t work at all, and those under 16 can work only three hours a day when school is in session. But on any farm, children can work at age 12, with no hourly limits outside of school hours. On a small farm kids of any age can work legally. This dangerous double standard between agriculture and other sectors is also discriminatory: 85 percent of farmworkers are Hispanic, and this group alone faces uniquely lower safety standards.
To make matters worse, existing regulations prohibiting hazardous farmwork for children are rarely if ever enforced. In 2010 the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department cited only three violations of agricultural hazardous orders, or 0.3 percent of the 1,064 hazardous occupation violations it found that year.
The Department of Labor, in withdrawing the rules, said it will work with the Farm Bureau and others who opposed the rules to develop educational programs to promote safe practices. But voluntary farm safety rules have been tried and have failed to keep children from dying at disproportionate rates. No one would accept voluntary safety standards for children working in factories or construction sites and we shouldn’t accept it on farms—at least not while agriculture accounts for so many preventable children’s deaths.
Coursen-Neff is the deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and the author of “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture.”