Point of View

A painful retreat on child labor

May 4, 2012 

More than a century ago, an Iowa farm boy, Oscar Benson, lost three fingers and part of the palm of his right hand to a saw. The injury forced Benson to abandon farming, but not his rural roots. As an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he organized agricultural and homemaking clubs nationwide, in part, to improve the health of rural children – work that made him the father of 4-H.

Today, the 200,000 children who work outside of their homes in agriculture could certainly use Benson’s help. Late last week the Obama administration capitulated to conservative criticism and killed a Department of Labor proposal that would have prevented businesses from hiring children to operate heavy machinery, labor in manure pits and otherwise engage in some of the most extreme child labor abuses in agricultural employment.

The proposal, the first update to agricultural child labor regulations in 40 years, immediately earned the ire of conservative politicians and apparent child labor enthusiasts. Critics argued that the rules would harm family farms and reflected a dramatic government overreach. Toward the end the debate took a more vitriolic turn, with articles charging that the government was “Banning Farm Chores” and would prevent kids from participating in educational programs like 4-H.

Even Sarah Palin chimed in. Citing her own 4-H experience, she warned the feds to “get your own house in order and stop interfering in ours.”

The criticisms contained startling inaccuracies. The rules would not affect youth over 16 except for youth employed in hazardous workplaces. They would only apply to employed youth, and educational programs like 4-H would not be affected. (4-H is actually a government program.) Youth on family-owned farms were exempted. And the changes narrowly proscribed activities that are inappropriate for children, such as spraying pesticides and working in industrial feedlots.

When faced with these distortions, the Obama administration surrendered, replacing the revisions with an educational program about workplace hazards – cold comfort for 12-year-olds harvesting vegetables on factory farms.

Oscar Benson, missing part of his right hand, knew the hazards of farm labor all too well. Part of 4-H’s purpose was to expand the government’s role in the daily life of rural Americans precisely because many farms depended on the brutal labor of children. In the early 20th century, three-quarters of the nation’s child-laborers worked on farms. Then, as now, those children were exposed to dangerous machinery and hazardous working conditions.

When Benson spoke about how Christian devotion demanded an agriculture nourishing to both the land and the bodies of rural children, it reflected a personal knowledge of child labor’s real costs.

Benson worked on his family’s farm, but today such farms constitute a small portion of agricultural employment. Many children work as migrants, next to their parents, on farms owned by multinational corporations. They don’t work for pocket money, personal edification or to prepare for future farm ownership. They work for meager wages and they often dream about a better life without backbreaking farm labor, labor that accounts for 75 percent of all fatalities for child workers under 16.

A century ago, efforts to ban child labor stumbled over the centrality of youth labor to farming. To avoid the farm lobby’s wrath, reformers proposed child labor bans that exempted agriculture. Progressive agriculturalists, like Benson, sought other ways to make farms safe for children and to curb exploitative child labor practices in rural America. 4-H is their legacy. To cite 4-H in order to weaken labor protections for rural children is perverse, and it distracts from the needed changes the Department of Labor hoped to make to American farms.

That conservative pressure cowed the Obama administration represents a distressing abandonment of the nation’s most vulnerable workers. I doubt Oscar Benson would approve.

Gabriel N. Rosenberg teaches in the history department at Duke University and is writing a book about the history of 4-H clubs and the modern American state.

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