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Child Labor On Farms Advocated By GOP Candidate

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WASHINGTON -- Tom Cotton, a GOP candidate for Congress, says he would like to see more children working long hours out in America's agricultural fields. The Republican from Arkansas' fourth district apparently isn't a big fan of child-labor laws pertaining to farms.

"We need more young people who've worked all day in the fields, not less," the Army reservist and Harvard grad fumed in a recent post on his 2012 campaign website (his italics). "It's time to tell Washington to get off our land."

The swipe at Washington is apparently a reference to some pending federal regulations pertaining to minors working on farms. The Labor Department has proposed a rule that would bar children under age 16 from performing certain agricultural duties deemed dangerous, such as driving tractors, operating power equipment, or castrating bulls. Although farm-worker advocates say the rules are decades overdue, some farmers have argued that bureaucrats are meddling needlessly in their industry.

Cotton is running for the seat that will be left wide open when Democratic Rep. Mike Ross retires next year, and he seems intent on making the new rules a campaign issue. His blog post urges visitors to sign a petition denouncing the child-labor regulations, calling them "just another example of how Washington regulates our state’s farmers without understanding us or our way of life." (Again, his italics.)

But Cotton's post also appears to promote some misinformation about the rules, saying they would "forbid our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews from working their family farms."

Children working on their parents' farms would be exempt from the rule and permitted to do any chore their parents see fit. As a Labor Department fact sheet on the rule explains, "A child of any age may perform any job, even hazardous work, at any age at any time on a farm owned by his or her parent." And nephews, nieces and grandchildren could still perform grown-up duties on relatives' farms, so long as they're not formal, paid employees, notes a Labor Department spokesperson.

Cotton's campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment on the child-labor rules.

Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign, which advocates for child migrant workers, says that some people in the agriculture industry have distorted what the new rules would do. She says the rule isn't targeted at family farms but at major agribusinesses that employ minors.

"The exemption protects people so they can pass along traditions," says Flores Lopez, who was a migrant farm worker herself as a child in Texas. "We're not touching that. They bring that up to detract from the real issue, the fact that kids are being put into real danger."

Public safety advocates have pointed out that stronger child-labor rules in agriculture and the grain industry could have helped prevent some recent tragedies involving minors, including an August incident in which two teenagers were critically injured after being pulled into a grain augur in Oklahoma. Weeks earlier, two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted and killed when they came into contact with an irrigator on an Illinois farm. The girls had been detasseling corn for bio-ag multinational Monsanto.

On his campaign site, Cotton says he was raised on a cattle farm, describing himself as "a tested leader with proven courage standing for free-market principles." He holds both a bachelor's and a law degree from Harvard, and he enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cotton nabbed an early endorsement in October from influential conservative blog RedState, which described him as "bright, articulate, and passionate about America, and conservative values. He is a small-government, pro-life conservative."

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