As Re-Election Campaign Gears Up, Obama Abandons Child Farm Worker Safety Rule

Mike Elk

(John Moore/Getty Images)

WASH­ING­TON, D.C. — For more than three years, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion coop­er­at­ed with work­place safe­ty advo­cates to devel­op guide­lines for­bid­ding chil­dren as young as 12 from tak­ing on per­ilous farm jobs. Farm­work is risky busi­ness: agri­cul­ture incurs six times as many work­place deaths as oth­er industries. 

But in a slight to work­place safe­ty advo­cates, last week the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion announced that it was with­draw­ing a set of pro­posed rules that would have reg­u­lat­ed child farm labor. The deci­sion to with­draw this rule — includ­ing pro­vi­sions to define the parental exemp­tion’ — was made in response to thou­sands of com­ments express­ing con­cerns about the effect of the pro­posed rules on small fam­i­ly-owned farms. To be clear, this reg­u­la­tion will not be pur­sued for the dura­tion of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion,” read an offi­cial statement. 

The anncounce­ment out­raged work­place safe­ty advo­cates. Typ­i­cal­ly, I can find words to express my out­rage. I can’t even find the words on this one,” says for­mer OSHA offi­cial Celeste Monforton. 

The rules were held up for nine months by the White House Office of Man­age­ment and Bud­get (OMB), an unusu­al­ly long delay. The admin­is­tra­tion final­ly released the rules for a pub­lic com­ment peri­od after two 14-year-old girls work­ing on a farm in Illi­nois were elec­tro­cut­ed last sum­mer, as I report­ed last Sep­tem­ber. Pro­po­nents felt con­fi­dent that once the rules passed through the OMB, they would be pub­lished. So it came as a shock when the admin­is­tra­tion not only placed the rules on hold, but declared that it would nev­er con­sid­er them again. 

The Oba­ma cam­p’s des­i­cion fol­lows an out­burst of crit­i­cism from right-wing pun­dits and agri­cul­tur­al inter­ests. Sarah Palin sums up the pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment against the pro­posed rules, say­ing If I want­ed Amer­i­ca to fail, I would ban kids from farm work.”

Crit­ics ignore that the rules explic­it­ly exempt­ed chil­dren who work infor­mal­ly on their fam­i­lies’ farms. The rule also con­tained a parental exemp­tion” where chil­dren work­ing under the super­vi­sion of their par­ents would have been per­mit­ted to keep work­ing. Fur­ther­more, the rule was in the pub­lic com­ment process and could have been altered to acco­mo­date the needs of fam­i­ly farm­ers con­cerned with poten­tial neg­a­tive effects on their operations. 

The hys­te­ria over the pro­posed rules grew so strong that even Sen­a­tor Al Franken (D‑Minn.) had his staff pres­sure the Depart­ment of Labor to drop the mat­ter. I think this is a good out­come,” Franken told Min­neso­ta Pub­lic Radio. They real­ized they need­ed to be work­ing with farm groups and not doing it so much as reg­u­la­tions as a safe­ty pro­gram because, as I said, no one cares more about their kids’ safety.”

If folks knew the truth about this rule, we do feel that [they] would have been sup­port­ive of this stuff,” says Nor­ma Flo­res Lopez of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Farm­work­er Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pro­grams. These rules were com­mon-sense rules that would have pre­vent­ed chil­dren from get­ting hurt or pos­si­bly los­ing their lives. Aban­don­ing [them] leaves a lot of chil­dren exposed and vulnerable.”

For work­place safe­ty advo­cates, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion’s deci­sion reflects a fright­en­ing trend that finds the pres­i­dent shirk­ing work­ers’ inter­ests as he read­ies his cam­paign for Novem­ber’s elec­tion. Anoth­er work­place safe­ty pro­pos­al designed to lim­it work­ers’ expo­sure to can­cer-caus­ing sil­i­ca dust has been in lim­bo for 14 months.

Oba­ma is going to be offi­cial­ly launch­ing his cam­paign in Vir­ginia and Ohio next week, and I real­ly believe that [drop­ping the child farm labor rules] has every­thing to do with the cam­paign and not sci­ence or pub­lic health,” Mon­fron­ton says. It would serve him and his cam­paign in rur­al Amer­i­ca to say I told my labor depart­ment to with­draw this and nev­er let it be pur­sued again in my administration.

For me, it’s uncon­scionable on some lev­els. They iden­ti­fied these haz­ards and basi­cal­ly said kids don’t need pro­tec­tion from any of them.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue