AFT, Child Labor Coalition urge immediate implementation of new safety rules

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Lorretta Johnson, AFT secretary-treasurer

AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson (shown left) joined other children’s advocates at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on April 19 to urge the U.S. Department of Labor to immediately implement updated safety rules that govern child labor in agriculture.

The Child Labor Coalition press conference offered an alternative narrative to legislation pending in Congress, misleadingly called “Preserving America’s Family Farm Act,” that would block implementation of the new child labor safety rules.

The proposed rules would update the agriculture hazardous occupation orders (for the first time since 1970) and list tasks considered too dangerous for children under age 16 who work in agriculture. The new restrictions, for example, would prohibit farm workers under 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment, including tractors and heavy machinery; working in silos and grain storage facilities; and handling pesticides.

The new rules would not apply to children working on family farms or children participating in agricultural educational programs such as 4-H.

“The American Federation of Teachers believes that it is our responsibility to educate the ‘whole child,’ ” said Johnson, who is co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition. “This means looking after the well-being of our children in and out of the classroom.”

The new safety rules, she said, would help ensure that all children who are employed on farms are appropriately protected. Children working in agriculture:

  • Often work 12 or more hours a day in scorching heat, bending over for hours as they pick fruits or vegetables;
  • Risk pesticide poisoning and high rates of injury from knives and heavy equipment;
  • Suffer fatalities at five times the rate of other young workers; and
  • Have only a 55 percent chance of finishing high school.

Other speakers at the event included former child farm worker Norma Flores Lopez and Catherine Rylatt, whose 19-year-old nephew, Alex Pacas, died in a grain engulfment in July 2010 in Mount Carroll, Ill., along with 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread.

Agriculture is the most dangerous industry open to children. Agriculture exemptions to the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act allow children to work for hire at age 12 on any farm with their parents’ consent; and restrictions on tasks that are considered dangerous are lifted at age 16, compared with age 18 in all other jobs. Three-quarters of working children under age 16 who died from work-related injuries in 2010 worked in agriculture. Thousands more were injured. [Kathy Nicholson, Cesar Moreno Perez, Abby Mills, Child Labor Coalition. Photo: ©2012Bill Burke/Photo One Photography]