Point of View

Protecting farm kids: a tough row to hoe

June 11, 2011 

— One in every five farm deaths in this country ends the life of a child. We must face North Carolina's role in that bloody truth.

North Carolina law doesn't allow children aged 13 years and under to be exposed to the dangers of the modern adult workplace: no construction sites, chemical plants, poultry processors or pickle factories. Sharp blades, heavy weights, power equipment, toxic chemicals, conveyer belts and the rough edges of adult behavior make these workplaces no place for kids - except if they work in agriculture.

Yet farm work has these dangers and more. Add green tobacco sickness, snakes, pesticides and rural isolation into the mix, steam it in sweltering heat and you have the real life story of "How I spent my Summer Vacation" guaranteed to a few thousand North Carolina kids not yet old enough to shave.

The continuation of this misery and danger is made possible by the efforts of the N.C. Farm Bureau and the state labor commissioner, and it may well be the story of that pint of blueberries you just picked up at the store.

Agriculture is exempt from most of the child protection laws and OSHA provisions that are intended to keep children from the worst danger and to protect folks in every other workplace. In the General Assembly this year, House Bill 838, offered by child advocates and sponsored by Ashe County Republican state Rep. Jonathan Jordan, would have taken the 10-to-13-year-olds out of the fields and restricted the older youth from specific hazards determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, such as applying pesticides and operating heavy machinery, that are the purview of those 18 and up in all other industries.

An exemption for farm family members was included - and then expanded - at the behest of the N.C. Farm Bureau. It allowed basically any work by family kids at family-owned or operated farms.

So far so good, right? But lest reason and common sense prevail at the General Assembly, the Farm Bureau and the labor commissioner intervened.

The commissioner's office reported her preference to wait on some consensus between the Farm Bureau and the bill's proponents. After much delay, the Farm Bureau revealed its position as being OK with the protections for the 10-to-12-year-olds, but not the 13-year-olds.

Negotiations broke down at this point, with child advocates again offering a slimmed-down version of the bill, without sacrificing the safety of 13-year-olds, but to no avail.

Jordan, the bill's sponsor, then explained that he would not bring the bill forward for a hearing because of his preference for consensus, the labor commissioner's opposition and the Farm Bureau's discomfort.

So the opportunity to discuss the issue or provide relief has now disappeared for the next two years - relieving the Farm Bureau and the labor commissioner of an awkward moment when they might be forced to explain their positions on child labor to the public.

If there is good reason for kids to work in these places, these people are well-positioned to make the case, and they should have to.

Forget the bucolic images of kids milking cows or raising a prized pumpkin. Farm life has changed radically since child labor laws were written at the dawn of the 20th century, and what we know about children and danger has changed.

Rather than make the case that the farm economy somehow turns on the toil of kids or reveal that somehow they see children forced by circumstance to do farm work as less deserving of protection than all other kids, they hide behind a bill sponsor they have pressured to hold the bill. They want him to take the heat for their turning their backs on children in danger.

Harry Payne, now senior counsel for policy and law at the N.C. Justice Center, has served as a state legislator and as N.C. labor commissioner. He was chairman of the Employment Security Commission from 2001 to 2009.

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