Backlash over Labor Department’s decision to drop family farm proposal

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As many across the heartland applauded the decision, some human-rights activists had harsh words for the Labor Departments withdrawal last week of a proposal for stricter labor standards for youth who work on the nations family farms.

The Obama administration had sought rule changes that would have banned children younger than 16 from what it describe as hazardous work including use of some farm equipment including tractors as well as prevent those younger than 18 from working in stockyards, grain bins and on feed lots.

But a backlash from across the farm belt, including some key Democratic lawmakers, scotched the plan.

“The U.S. Labor Department has caved in to Big Agriculture and their allies in Congress to abandon the most vulnerable working children in America,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, the deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement reacting to the pullback.

“Instead of protecting child farm workers, the Labor Department will look the other way when children get crushed, suffocated, and poisoned on the job.”

But farm advocates, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, called the governments proposal “overreaching.”

The federation in a statement Friday praised Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for listening to input from farmers and ranchers as well as Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana Republican, among others in Congress “for standing up for agriculture and the rural way of life.”

“This announcement shows the strength of American agriculture and grass-roots action,” the farm bureau said. “Farm Bureau will continue working to ensure that the parental exemptions that remain important to agriculture will be protected, and we will continue our work to help educate families about the importance of farm safety.”

But the Labor Department’s withdrawal had bipartisan support.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat who serves as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, applauded the Labor Department for hearing the concerns of family farmers who opposed the changes.

“There must be strong safeguards to protect children from dangerous situations, but there needs to be an understanding that many children in rural communities learn about safety by helping their family on the farm,” Mrs. Stabenow said.

After changes to decades-old laws were proposed by the Obama administration last year, farm families across the nation pushed back with outrage at what some called a big-footed government usurping a cultural lifeblood that they said provided youth with a sense of responsibility and a training ground for future agricultural business.

Among those against the changes were the Future Farmers of America and 4-H groups.

Dan Stewart, a rancher from Arkansas, told the Delta Farm Press that changes to the farm bills rules on child labor would be “devastating” to his farming.

“My thought is that at an early age you need to instill a love for farming,” he told the publication. “In our area, particularly, farming is more than just an economic thing. Its a way of life and something you really want to do because, at times, its tough. If you dont love what you do, youre not going to stay in it. If you instill that in your children and grandchildren at an early age, you can continue to have the family farm.”

The Labor Department said it had sought to reduce fatalities for child farm workers in proposing such changes. It said it backed off because of the outpouring against the measure as many agriculture advocates cited the impact on small farmers where youth often pitched in to keep the farm afloat.

“The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations,” the Labor Department responded in a statement.

“To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration. Instead, the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders - such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America and 4-H - to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.”

Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to enforce treaty obligations, citing obligations under the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention of the International Labor Organization. The group noted that child labor disproportionately affected poor Hispanic children, who made up the bulk of child farm workers in the U.S., the group said.

“Only Congress can change the lethal double standard that allows children to do hazardous work in agriculture at age 16, while prohibiting the same work in all other jobs until age 18,” Ms. Coursen-Neff said. “But the Labor Department can protect children under 16 from hazardous jobs, and it should.”

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