Family farms and other conservative fairy tales

I have an addendum to my earlier post about bullying. I mentioned that in his WSJ piece, Nick Gillespie defended life-threatening child labor practices. The facts are these: as Michelle Chen of the excellent In These Times labor blog, Working, reported earlier this week:

Advocates have for months been pressing the Labor Department to finalize a rule change that would help shield child farm workers from some of the most severe occupational hazards, such as handling pesticides and dangerous farm equipment, and would beef up protections for workers under age 16.

Gillespie refers to the children who would be affected as “kids” “working the family farm.”

Um, no.

Actually, as Chen reports, the children affected would overwhelmingly be desperately poor Latino immigrants working on big industrial farms owned by the major agribusiness concerns. Gillespie’s dishonest representation of this issue is a common ploy among conservatives, however. Whenever business regulations are debated, they are quite fond of painting heartwarming pictures of the affected parties, spinning sentimental tales about idyllic family farms and plucky small business owners. But in fact the entities being affected almost always tend to be gigantic,very rich, and very powerful corporations.

Some of the gushing, over-the-top schmaltz the agribusiness lobbyists are deploying in the war of words over the proposed change is pretty hilarious. For example, as Chen reports, the language of a bill that would block the reforms “[evokes] an imaginary pastoral ideal of the American homestead” and

argues that the strengthening of child labor protections would “adversely impact the long standing tradition of youth working on farms to gain valuable skills and lessons on hard work, character, and leadership” and would hurt their opportunities to “gain experiential learning and hands-on skills.”

The reality, as documented by the Child Labor Coalition, is more like this:

– More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.
– According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms—that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.

While the new regulations would surely be a step in the right direction, the practical effects may be underwhelming. As Chen notes:

The saddest aspect of this political debate around farm labor is that the most systemic abuses would not be stopped by just tightening child regulations—not even by enacting the stronger restrictions on child labor that lawmakers have previously proposed in the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment. Whatever the law says, the marginalization of the farm workforce makes comprehensive enforcement nearly impossible.

Justin Feldman of Public Citizen told In These Times, “People are afraid because of immigration status, because of limited English ability, because of poverty and all sorts of issues. They’re afraid to come forward to authorities and report.”

Still, the new rules would be an improvement in the status quo. They might even end up saving a child’s life.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee