Cheap Food and Child Farm Labor

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, we invited three Foundation grantees to address the unfinished work of the Act and the next generation of reforms to protect working families at the bottom of the labor market. What follows is one of those responses. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Public Welfare Foundation.

By Celeste Monforton
Project Director, Beyond OSHA

U.S. consumers today expect to eat on the cheap.  Many grocery chains offer lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, grapes and other produce for less than $1 or $2 a pound.  The benefit to consumers comes at a cost to the workers who pick and process those goods.

Migrant farm workers in the U.S. earn subsistence wages – typically a piece rate –   that often forces them to have their children assist in the fields.  Farm worker parents have few childcare options and may feel their children are safer accompanying them in the fields than staying home alone.  It’s not unusual for farm worker children as young as six or eight years old to begin working the crops.  During peak seasons, children may labor for 10 hours a day in working conditions that most native-born Americans avoid.  Temperatures in the fields can exceed 100 degrees, pesticides pose poisoning risks, and heavy equipment and vehicles are a special threat to youngsters who are too small to be seen.

Young workers are not just employed in crop work.  They have other agricultural jobs, from tending to livestock and operating hay bailers, to felling trees and working in grain silos.  All of these tasks can be especially dangerous for youngsters who don’t have the training or the maturity to manage the risk.  Not long ago, two teens lost legs each lost a leg while operating a grain auger in Oklahoma.  Two other youngsters were asphyxiated in grain at a silo in Illinois.  One of the boys was only 14 years old.

Jobs in U.S. agriculture have one of the highest fatality rates.  Put that together with a fatality rate for all young workers that is double the rate for all U.S. workers and you have a deadly combination for young workers employed in agriculture.

This is especially disturbing as we recognize the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The 1938 law mandated special protections for children under age 16, such as prohibiting them from being employed in coal mines, textile mills and other factories.  Special exceptions, however, were carved out for agricultural employers, so children working on farms have less protection than those working in other industries.

As authorized by the FLSA, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) stipulates dozens of work activities that are too dangerous for individuals of certain ages.  Workers under age 18, for example, are prohibited from operating cardboard balers in grocery stores, and from driving a forklift.  In 2010, DOL issued a new set of rules governing hazardous tasks for workers under age 18 who are employed in non-agricultural jobs, such as prohibitions on using wood chippers.  The safety rules governing young workers employed in agricultural jobs, however, have not been updated for 43 years.

All that was poised to change in 2010 when DOL drafted a proposed rule to address serious hazards faced by farm workers under age 16.  The Department submitted the proposal to the White House’s “regulatory czar” for review.  Agricultural interests inside and outside the Administration raised objections to the proposal, and it was stalled from release for nearly a year.  A campaign by children’s rights, worker safety, and public health advocates—-along with more news stories of young workers dying on U.S. farms—-compelled the release of the proposed rule.  It would have prohibited workers aged 15 and younger from working inside a grain silo or manure pit; serving as pesticide handlers; and operating a tractor without special vocational training, among other things.

But the ensuing public comment period led to a vocal misinformation campaign by the farming lobby about the proposed protections.  Opponents of the rules claimed DOL was interfering in the wholesome activities of rural America.  Members of Congress jumped on the bandwagon, calling for the Obama administration to withdraw the proposed new rules.  Advocates’ efforts to direct attention to the injuries and deaths suffered by young workers were overwhelmed by opponents’ claims that the Obama Administration was destroying the family farm and 4-H programs.  (There were exemptions for both in DOL’s proposal.)

The heat was too much for the Administration.  In April 2012 – on Worker Memorial Day, no less, the day that remembers and honors workers who have been killed on the job – the Labor Department withdrew the proposed rule.  The announcement was punctuated with the statement “to be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”  The consolation offered was a promise to work with rural stakeholders to develop an educational program for youngsters to promote safety in agricultural work.

But child labor advocates are still waiting even for the consolation prize.

“There has been little or no information forthcoming from DOL on education about the existing regulations or about current enforcement efforts,” noted Mary E. Miller, a registered nurse and a national expert on safety for young workers.  “Meanwhile children and adolescent youth continue to be placed at risk in agricultural work environments.”

The FLSA has allowed millions of children to avoid dangerous work and grow up safe and healthy, but its exemptions leave young agricultural workers at risk.  With the Obama administration having withdrawn its proposed rule changes, action to improve safety protection for child farm laborers will have to come from a future administration.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

Celeste Monforton

Celeste Monforton is a Professorial Lecturer at the George Washington University Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and director of Beyond OSHA, a project to help workers make better use of their rights in the workplace. She has worked as a policy advisor and chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary at the Mine Safety and Health Administration and also as a legislative analyst at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She is also an active volunteer with United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, an advocacy group for family members of workers killed on the job.

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