Farm child labor: Which side are you on?

Field-workers, Goodrich Tobacco Farm, near Gildersleeve, Conn., 1917. Lewis Wickes Hine, American. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

Last month the US Department of Labor bowed to political pressure spearheaded by agribusiness lobbyists like the American Farm Bureau Federation and cancelled its planned revision of safety rules for farm child labor, a follow-on to similar rules for kids working in non-farm industries that the Department had issued in 2010.

Although a lot of noise was made about the threat these rules posed to family farms amid claims of government overreach, they were specifically aimed at underage migrant farm labor.

A Washington Post article noted that that Labor Department tried to avoid controversy by emphasizing that children working on their parents’ farms would be excluded from the proposals. That exemption is actually a matter of federal statute under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The Labor Department lacked the authority to change it.

It’s worth noting that a Labor Department summary of the proposed changes stated clearly that the parental exemption “allows the child of a farmer to perform any task, even hazardous tasks, at any age on a farm owned or operated by the parent.”

The parental exemption as interpreted by the Labor Department applies to relatives who assume the role of parents, so expressed concerns about farm children not being allowed to work on their grandfathers’ or uncles’ farms were equally unfounded.

The outcome of this brouhaha has been a complete cave of the Obama administration to the interests of agribusiness. Once again, the top 1% have triumphed, this time at the expense of some of the poorest in our land.

Actually, the migrant children in the fields today, facing severe poverty and limited educational opportunities, starkly represent how far modern industrial farming has drifted from the bygone bucolic ideal of the family farm.