Skip to main content

Obama, strengthen rules on child farm labor

By Cristina Traina, Special to CNN
January 18, 2013 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
Cristina Traina says in his second term, Obama must address weaknesses in child farm labor standards
Cristina Traina says in his second term, Obama must address weaknesses in child farm labor standards
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cristina Traina: Obama should strengthen child farm labor standards
  • She says Labor Dept. rules allow kids to work long hours for little pay on commercial farms
  • She says Obama administration scrapped Labor Dept. chief's proposal for tightening rules
  • She says Labor Dept. must fix lax standards for kid labor on farmers; OSHA must enforce them

Editor's note: Cristina L.H. Traina is a Public Voices Op Ed fellow and professor at Northwestern University, where she is a scholar of social ethics.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama should use the breathing space provided by the fiscal-cliff compromise to address some of the issues that he shelved during his last term. One of the most urgent is child farm labor. Perhaps the least protected, underpaid work force in American labor, children are often the go-to workers for farms looking to cut costs.

It's easy to see why. The Department of Labor permits farms to pay employees under 20 as little as $4.25 per hour. (By comparison, the federal minimum wage is $7.25.) And unlike their counterparts in retail and service, child farm laborers can legally work unlimited hours at any hour of day or night.

The numbers are hard to estimate, but between direct hiring, hiring through labor contractors, and off-the-books work beside parents or for cash, perhaps 400,000 children, some as young as 6, weed and harvest for commercial farms. A Human Rights Watch 2010 study shows that children laboring for hire on farms routinely work more than 10 hours per day.

As if this were not bad enough, few labor safety regulations apply. Children 14 and older can work long hours at all but the most dangerous farm jobs without their parents' consent, if they do not miss school. Children 12 and older can too, as long as their parents agree. Unlike teen retail and service workers, agricultural laborers 16 and older are permitted to operate hazardous machinery and to work even during school hours.

In addition, Human Rights Watch reports that child farm laborers are exposed to dangerous pesticides; have inadequate access to water and bathrooms; fall ill from heat stroke; suffer sexual harassment; experience repetitive-motion injuries; rarely receive protective equipment like gloves and boots; and usually earn less than the minimum wage. Sometimes they earn nothing.

Little is being done to guarantee their safety. In 2011 Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis proposed more stringent agricultural labor rules for children under 16, but Obama scrapped them just eight months later.

Adoption of the new rules would be no guarantee of enforcement, however. According to the 2010 Human Rights Watch report, the Department of Labor employees were spread so thin that, despite widespread reports of infractions they found only 36 child labor violations and two child hazardous order violations in agriculture nationwide.

This lack of oversight has dire, sometimes fatal, consequences. Last July, for instance, 15-year-old Curvin Kropf, an employee at a small family farm near Deer Grove, Illinois, died when he fell off the piece of heavy farm equipment he was operating, and it crushed him. According to the Bureau County Republican, he was the fifth child in fewer than two years to die at work on Sauk Valley farms.

If this year follows trends, Curvin will be only one of at least 100 children below the age of 18 killed on American farms, not to mention the 23,000 who will be injured badly enough to require hospital admission. According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries. It is the most dangerous for children, accounting for about half of child worker deaths annually.

The United States has a long tradition of training children in the craft of farming on family farms. At least 500,000 children help to work their families' farms today.

Farm parents, their children, and the American Farm Bureau objected strenuously to the proposed new rules. Although children working on their parents' farms would specifically have been exempted from them, it was partly in response to worries about government interference in families and loss of opportunities for children to learn agricultural skills that the Obama administration shelved them.

Gordon Brown on plight of child workers
Child labor in sugar harvest

Whatever you think of family farms, however, many child agricultural workers don't work for their parents or acquaintances. Despite exposure to all the hazards, these children never learn the craft of farming, nor do most of them have the legal right to the minimum wage. And until the economy stabilizes, the savings farms realize by hiring children makes it likely that even more of them will be subject to the dangers of farm work.

We have a responsibility for their safety. As one of the first acts of his new term, Obama should reopen the child agricultural labor proposal he shelved in spring of 2012. Surely, farm labor standards for children can be strengthened without killing off 4-H or Future Farmers of America.

Second, the Department of Labor must institute age, wage, hour and safety regulations that meet the standards set by retail and service industry rules. Children in agriculture should not be exposed to more risks, longer hours, and lower wages at younger ages than children in other jobs.

Finally, the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must allocate the funds necessary for meaningful enforcement of child labor violations. Unenforced rules won't protect the nearly million other children who work on farms.

Agriculture is a great American tradition. Let's make sure it's not one our children have to die for.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cristina Traina.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT