In 2008, I started my personal journey to change the child labor law exemptions in agriculture. I still don’t understand politics, but as an engineer I do recognize trends. The opposition’s mode is not to rally, march, and protest. The people and organizations who want to keep the status quo in agriculture, including keeping someone else’s kids working, fight quietly behind the scenes. They use lawyers, keep the message simple, and they use the political system effectively. They are united; they have funds and political power. Do our kids have a chance for equal representation against those seeking to keep them in the bonds of poverty?
Recall that in 2009 the Department of Labor (DOL) overturned the Bush-Chao legislation signed before leaving office which allowed farmers to pay less than minimum wage to H2-A guest workers brought over to harvest. The North Carolina Growers Association and American Farm Bureau Federation then sued the Department of Labor. My first thought was, they have money for lawyers, but not to pay properly?
In September 2011, the DOL proposed some Hazardous Orders to protect hired youth on farms. I naively wrote to Hilda Solis asking her to tackle more. Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau and others took to the media with a simple statement: the parental exemption didn’t recognize corporations as parents, and many family farms were limited liability corporations. Many submitted nostalgic comments to the DOL about working for their parents, and the importance of the 4-H programs for caring for animals. I wonder if they offer any training on how to treat workers, because we are treated like animals, maybe worse. The box-like living conditions are fit for animals, but some animals receive medical care, unlike the hired help.
Before the year’s end a multitude of both Congressmen and Senators wrote to the DOL stating essentially that corporations are parents and the orders were unnecessary. The DOL compromised by offering another opportunity for comments on the parental exemption. This wasn’t sufficient. In March 2012 a bill was introduced with a heartrending name, Preserving America’s Family Farms Act [S. 2221 and H.R. 4157]. The two page bill defends the importance of children helping on family farms but doesn’t address the injuries, fatalities and the fact that hired help are treated differently than relatives. In a brief final sentence the bill seeks to block the DOL – period. This bill prevents the Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, from pulling a Bush-Chao when she leaves office.
“The Secretary of Labor shall not finalize or enforce the proposed rule entitled “Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretation; Child Labor Violations-..”
The bill was introduced in both the House and Senate. I feel confident this bill will leave committee. Why? Because the sub-committee on Workforce Protections is now chaired by Tim Walberg of Michigan. On his website he states the following:
Ensure Steady Labor Supply
We also need to retain a steady labor supply for our farms, and I am working to ensure there is adequate farm labor to pick American crops. As Chairman of the Workforce Protections subcommittee, I called a hearing in September 2011 to address workforce challenges facing the agricultural industry.
Prevent Undue Regulations
-Working to prevent the implementation of a Department of Labor (DOL) rule that would prohibit youths from working on farms by sending a December 2011 letter to DOL Secretary Solis expressing my dismay at attempts to hinder family farms.
If one reads between the lines, one could infer they are counting on a new president. Why wouldn’t President Obama support his appointed Secretary of Labor? Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney misleadingly said that the Obama administration is telling farmers what they can and can’t do with their kids on a family farm. Is it safe to assume Romney would sign the bill?
After four years, I recognize the trends but still don’t know how to play the game of politics. My recent request to discuss laboring children with my state senator, John McCain, was politely declined. I later learned Senator McCain has signed on as a co-sponsor of S.2221. I’d like to tackle this issue in court but my attempts to find legal representation have failed.
Despite these trends, I’m less frustrated, because I understand that the power of one isn’t enough – it does take a village. Working on The Harvest documentary with director and human rights advocate U. Roberto Romano gave me a sense of contribution and community. We, the community who seek to protect children, can use our voices collectively. We won’t be swayed with spoon-fed one-liners and we don’t have to take to the streets. Let the DOL know we support the proposed rules. Sign a petition:
Let’s write to the Senators and Congressmen who co-sponsored the Preserving America’s Family Farm bill and let them know we, the hired help, vote and deserve equal protection for our children.
The full list for the Senate and House is available at:
Julia Perez is an electrical engineer and writer. She is currently writing Among the Forgotten, which describes the behind-the-scenes challenges of filming The Harvest/La Cosecha.