President Obama traveled to Keene, California, on Monday to designate the home of César E. Chávez as a national monument -- a worthy honor for a key figure in the ongoing push for safe working conditions and fair pay. One thing the president did not raise in his remarks is that just a few months ago, his administration took the side of big agriculture against the safety of farmworkers.
In April, White House staff jettisoned a key Department of Labor (DOL) proposal establishing safety protections for young agricultural workers -- teenagers working in very dangerous jobs.
That’s rather important context surrounding Monday’s event. The White House’s press release rightly notes that “Chávez played a central role in achieving basic worker protections for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers across the country, from provisions ensuring drinking water was provided to workers in the fields, to steps that helped limit workers’ exposure to dangerous pesticides, to helping to establish basic minimum wages and health care access for farm workers.”
The administration has recognized the danger of this work before, and the DOL proposal would have updated 40-year-old “hazardous orders” designed to protect hired children. Last year, announcing the proposed changes, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said: "Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America.” And: “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."
The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than for their peers in other workplaces. The DOL’s proposal would have prohibited children under 18 years old from working for hire to perform some of agriculture industry's most dangerous jobs: operating farm machinery; feeding, herding, or otherwise handling farm animals; managing crops stored in grain elevators or silos; or picking tobacco (because young people are especially vulnerable to a form of nicotine poisoning known as “green tobacco sickness”). For better or worse, but nevertheless significantly, as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the new requirements would have exempted children who work for their parents or a relative or friend standing in the place of a parent, no matter what their age or the activity.
The Farm Bureau (aka Big Ag) and its supporters in Congress attacked the rule relentlessly, labeling the rule an assault on family farms. The White House never went to bat for DOL’s proposal, never bothering to make the case why the rule was needed. The rule’s opponents were able to dominate the debate, despite frequent, outright lies. Farmworker and worker safety advocates supported the rule, but lacked the political power that Big Ag was able to bring to the fight.
On April 26th of this year, the administration withdrew the proposed rule. The press release took the extraordinary step of saying “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”
President Obama honored farmworkers on Monday. But when the administration had the chance to actually take action to make agricultural work for young people safer, it caved to political pressure. Sadly, actions speak louder than words.