Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Farmworker Kids

by Matt Shudtz

November 19, 2014

Next week in this space, we’ll ask you to think about the food on your Thanksgiving table and what FDA ought to do to keep it safe. Today, I want to focus on how the food gets there—in particular, the work children contribute to the farms where our food and other crops are grown. Many people hold on to the image of children gathering eggs in the yard or dumping a pail of slop in front of an appreciative sow as the true and full extent of child farm labor. But the reality of life on a farm can be much different. In fact, the awful truth is that hundreds of kids who enjoyed Thanksgiving with their families last year won’t be able to this year because they died in an agriculture-related incident in the last twelve months.

In our recent Issue Alert, we urged President Obama to take two important steps toward limiting deaths and injuries for farmworkers. First, the President should reverse course on his administration’s decision to leave weak child labor standards in place. The Department of Labor had a proposal on the table that would have updated the rules to better protect kids working on farms and engaged in the most hazardous activities, including working in tobacco fields, with vehicles and powered machinery, and working at heights. In April 2012, the Secretary of Labor announced that her department would not move forward with the proposal, and even included a rare (perhaps unprecedented) declaration that no such rules would move during the remainder of President Obama’s administration. That decision and announcement were made for dubious political purposes that are no longer relevant. The vulnerable members of Congress who were supposed to benefit from the rules being scuttled are gone, but kids are still dying and suffering injuries on farms due to hazards that the Department of Labor should regulate.

The other rule that we urged President Obama to make a priority in his final two years in office is EPA’s Pesticide Worker Protection Standard. That rule has been proposed and EPA has collected public comments—now the agency needs to usher it through White House review and into the rulebooks. The proposal takes a step in the right direction by—for the first time—setting a minimum age for the most dangerous pesticide jobs, like mixing, loading, or applying the chemicals, or entering fields to work with plants soon after pesticides have been applied. However, EPA set that minimum age at 16. We think 18 is a better cut-off, given kids’ ongoing physical, mental, and social development throughout those years. In the Issue Alert, we also urge EPA to strengthen “buffer zone” protections (so that workers aren’t exposed to pesticides when neighboring fields are sprayed) and provisions for wash facilities (so that workers aren’t bringing pesticides home with them on their clothes).

Last Sunday, a small group including Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a national food policy that they predict could save millions of lives. They outlined nine principles upon which that policy ought to be based. After ensuring all Americans have access to healthful food, their top priority is promoting farm policies that will support public health (read: worker health) and environmental objectives. The “farm to table” movement, to the extent they follow the lead of the celebrity writers and thinkers like Bittman and Pollan—may be starting to expand their activism beyond demanding locally sourced, artisanal ingredients raised in an environmentally sustainable manner. President Obama has an opportunity to harness that energy and prove that his administration cares about the people who toil at the bottom of the food chain.

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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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