You’d think that a proposal to protect children from particularly dangerous child labor would be non-controversial. But no. Thursday evening the Department of Labor withdrew a proposed rule to keep kids under 16 from doing dangerous farm labor such as operating heavy machinery, working with pesticides, working with tobacco, and working in grain silos and other dangerous locations. The reason? Although the proposed regulation explicitly exempted kids working on their parents’ farms, there was an outcry that it would … hurt family farms by preventing kids from working on them.
After the Department of Labor clarified that the rule would not apply to kids working on their parents’ farms, the opposition went in two directions. Some switched their focus to the alleged concern that kids wouldn’t be able to work on uncles’ and grandparents’ farms and so rural life would still take a hit; others kept the focus on parents. That misinformation campaign included a Facebook post from Sarah Palin claiming, falsely, that “The Obama Administration is working on regulations that would prevent children from working on our own family farms.”
In fact, the real issue here is not family farms. Last summer, two 14-year-old girls were fatally electrocuted while working in a Monsanto cornfield. Child labor is common on North Carolina tobacco farms, where workers may absorb as much as 36 cigarettes worth of nicotine in a day, have limited access to water and toilets, and are exposed to pesticides.
Many of the people concerned about the proposal to restrict child agricultural labor may have legitimately, if incorrectly, believed that family farming would be threatened. But more than 400,000 kids aged 12 to 17 work on farms in the United States. Most of them are not helping their farm-owner parents or grandparents out; many of them are migrant workers trying to help their families get by, working in the same harsh conditions adults face, and dropping out of school at high rates. There’s big money in children working on non-family farms, and that played a major role in the organized, powerful campaign to keep kids in the fields.