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Farm groups praise bill to prevent child labor rule revision, but child labor advocates denounces it

Farm groups praised House passage Tuesday of a measure that would prevent the Labor Department from revising farm child labor rules.

Children of farmers are allowed to perform almost any task on a farm at any age, and rules for other children working on farms are more liberal than for other occupations.

The Labor Department proposed a revision in the hazardous occupations order, but later issued a statement that it was withdrawing the rule and would not repropose it as long as President Barack Obama is in office.

But Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said he and others wanted to provide farmers “certainty” that no future administration would try to revise the rule.

A large coalition of farm groups urged passage of the measure to prevent the rule change.

The bill preserves “the ability of youth to gain training and education by working on the farm. It also protects an agricultural way of life from future child labor regulations that could limit the ability of youth to learn valuable skills by working on the farm,” a coalition led by the American Farm Bureau Federation wrote House members.

Joining Farm Bureau on the letter:
  • American Feed Industry Association
  • American Horse Council
  • American Seed Trade Association
  • American Soybean Association
  • Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association
  • International Association of Fairs and Expositions
  • National Association of State Departments of Agriculture
  • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • National Council of Agricultural Employers
  • National Cotton Council
  • National FFA Organization
  • National Milk Producers Federation
  • National Pork Producers Council
  • United Fresh Produce Association
  • U.S. Apple Association
After its passage, the National Milk Producers Federation said it was “heartened” by the House action. The measure, National Milk noted, “includes any effort, similar to what was made this year, to change the definition of the ‘parental exemption,’ change the student learner exemption, and significantly redefine what practices would be acceptable for youth under the age of 16 in which to participate.”

But the Child Labor Coalition, which is composed of 28 groups including the American Federation of Teachers, said the title of the bill, the ”Preserving America's Family Farms Act,” was misleading, and that the legislation sends “a dangerous message, suggesting that the Department of Labor’s goal of protecting children on farms was misguided.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the coalition said. “Agriculture is the most dangerous sector that children are allowed to work in, with fatality and injury rates that are truly frightening.”

The Child Labor Coalition estimated that the withdrawn hazardous occupations orders would have saved 50 to 100 children working on farms from workplace fatalities, and that “it would have saved thousands of other children from debilitating injuries.”

The coalition maintained that the rule would have exempted the sons and daughters of farm owners working on their parents’ farms, although the initial proposal would have required that the parents be the operators or majority owners of the farm.

Some of the rule changes would have addressed farm children using heavy machinery, while others would have addressed issues that affect children who pick fruits and vegetables, such as the number of hours children could work in hot and cold weather and on the height of ladders they could use.

Norma Flores López, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, also said the campaign against the rewrite of the rule was misleading.

“We are very disappointed to see the House of Representatives moved towards restricting the Department of Labor from implementing long-overdue and much-needed safety rules to protect children from dangerous jobs,” she said.

“Last September, the Department of Labor highlighted the need to protect children from dangerous working conditions on farms that could seriously hurt, and at times even kill, young children, and it’s unfortunate Congress has ignored this need,” López said.

“Instead of creating a safer work place for America's children, they are protecting the agribusiness interest. Once again, a phony image of what farm life is like is trumping the needs of America’s most vulnerable workers: farmworker children.”