Recently, the Obama administration has proposed several new child labor laws pertaining to agricultural work, and Republican Congressman Danny Rehberg, from Montana, has accused the administration of trying to meddle and not knowing enough about the situation before getting involved. These new laws would target young people working on farms, and would try to limit the sorts of tasks they are allowed to perform in their work. In this article, found in the Huffington Post, Rehberg attacks the new laws and claims that the work they target is perfectly safe for young people. He says, ”You can’t get hurt…It’s impossible. You could have a five-year-old out there running it.” Congressman Rehberg believes that this disconnect comes from people in Washington not truly understanding the work being done on American farms anymore. In his opinion, new technology makes previously unsafe tasks more fit for young laborers, and new safeguards will prevent injuries that previously occurred.
This is a grain auger, one of the types of farm machinery being targeted by the newly proposed child labor regulations.
As my fellow classmate, Daniela Hernandez, wrote in her piece Labor Department proposes new child labor laws, the reaction to the law is similar to the one discussed in Zelizer’s article on useful children. Farming families are attacking the law in a similar way to when Congress proposed child labor regulations in the 1920’s, as an invasion of the rights of parents to use their child’s labor for the benefit of the family (Zelizer, 36). I agree with this connection, in that families who use the labor of their children on family farms still feel that the government has no business meddling in their affairs. They believe that through new innovations in safety technology, the labor is safer than ever and is not a threat to children. Along with this, they also feel that the federal government is overstepping its boundaries in legislating on a topic that should be left to state governments.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, republican congressman Denny Rehberg pledged to use his funding powers in order to prevent the current administration from approving the new child labor laws proposed by the Labor Department. If implemented, these laws would prohibit minors from performing certain types of farm-related tasks deemed too dangerous for them. Representative Rehberg argues that the new proposals are skewed due to a general misconception about what truly takes place in American farms. He claims that farm work has changed significantly over the last century, and thanks to the many technological advances, farmers can now perform their tasks with modern equipment that is incapable of hurting them. “You can’t get hurt,” Rehberg stated. “It’s impossible. You could have a five-year-old out there running it.”
However, the several accidents concerning minors working in farms that have transpired during the last few months beg to differ. In July 25 of last year, ten farm workers were injured in an electrocution accident while they were detasseling corn in a Illinois field. Of these ten workers, two were 14-year-old girls who, after being rushed to the hospital, were pronounced dead. Just two weeks later, two 17-year-old boys working on a farm in Oklahoma, suffered critical injuries when pulled into a grain augur while on the job.
Furthermore, “although child and worker advocates said the new rules were long overdue, the proposals created an uproar among farmers and agricultural trade groups, who argued that the rules could hurt family-farming traditions” (Dave Jamieson). This reaction on behalf of farmers is strikingly similar to the one Zelizer describes in the chapter of her book that we read for class. When Congress approved a constitutional amendment regulating child labor in 1924, the biggest opposition came from the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Farm Bureau Federation (36). However, when we consider the terrible economic circumstances that characterized that time period, the opposition from the farmers becomes more understandable. Zelizer quotes Michael Haines’ explanation that child labor “appears to have been the main source of additional support for the late nineteenth-century urban family under economic stress” (34). Nowadays, however, there is no excuse for their opposition. Incomes have increased enough that there is no need for children to work. And if they do decide to work they should be protected from performing those tasks that could potentially endanger their lives.
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.