California farmers, as well as farmers nationwide, are letting out a collective sigh of relief as the U.S. Department of Labor announced Thursday that it will no longer pursue a controversial set of legislations related to child labor on America’s farms.
The U.S. Department of Labor and the Obama administration received heavy criticism for a proposed regulation that would have barred children under 16 from working on farms that are not solely owned by a child’s parents. Specifically, it would have barred children from agricultural-related jobs such as operating power equipment, driving tractors or four-wheelers, branding and breeding farm animals, working with manure and working on ladders above six-feet high.
In early February the Labor Department announced that it planned to modify the regulation but nothing had been released until Thursday.
While most farmers are happy with the decision to drop legislation, not everyone is rejoicing. Child labor groups say they are disappointed that the Obama administration is backing off a plan to keep children from doing what they claim is “the most dangerous farm jobs.”
The Child Labor Coalition said the Labor Department’s sudden decision late Thursday to withdraw the proposed rules means more children will die in farm accidents that could have been prevented.
The Labor Department's proposed law focused on protecting children working in agriculture. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, agriculture has the second highest fatality rate among young workers, ages 15 to 24, at 21.3 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, compared to 3.6 across all other industries. The most common cause of deaths among young workers was from farm machinery, in particular over-turned tractors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Local almond grower and Turlock Irrigation District Director Ron Macedo grew up on his parents’ farm and said he didn’t buy that argument. He picked sweet potatoes and would often ride a tractor cutting potatoes the tractor missed. Macedo said he understands that accidents happen, but the benefits of learning about hard work far outweigh the instances of accidental death or injury.
“I think this is simply an invasion of privacy. One part of working on a farm as a kid is learning about safety. I think all of us who grew up on a farm learned about family structure, work ethic. We all knew the danger and I understand that they want to keep kids safe, but at what cost?” he said.
The proposed legislation didn’t sit well with farm groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation that complained it would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates. The Labor Department said Thursday it was responding to thousands of comments that expressed concern about the impact of the changes on small family-owned farms.
“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,” the agency said in a statement.
"Few issues galvanized family farmers and ranchers like this one did," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said in a statement. "Everyone who has grown up on a farm or ranch recognizes the value of allowing young people to learn by doing."