Opinion: Obama should address child farm labor issues now
January 19th, 2013
02:00 PM ET
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Editor's note: Cristina L.H. Traina is a Public Voices Op Ed fellow and professor at Northwestern University, where she is a scholar of social ethics.

President Barack Obama should use the breathing space provided by the fiscal-cliff compromise to address some of the issues that he shelved during his last term. One of the most urgent is child farm labor. Perhaps the least protected, underpaid work force in American labor, children are often the go-to workers for farms looking to cut costs.

It's easy to see why. The Department of Labor permits farms to pay employees under 20 as little as $4.25 per hour. (By comparison, the federal minimum wage is $7.25.) And unlike their counterparts in retail and service, child farm laborers can legally work unlimited hours at any hour of day or night.

The numbers are hard to estimate, but between direct hiring, hiring through labor contractors, and off-the-books work beside parents or for cash, perhaps 400,000 children, some as young as 6, weed and harvest for commercial farms. A Human Rights Watch 2010 study shows that children laboring for hire on farms routinely work more than 10 hours per day.

As if this were not bad enough, few labor safety regulations apply. Children 14 and older can work long hours at all but the most dangerous farm jobs without their parents' consent, if they do not miss school. Children 12 and older can too, as long as their parents agree. Unlike teen retail and service workers, agricultural laborers 16 and older are permitted to operate hazardous machinery and to work even during school hours.

Read - Obama, strengthen rules on child farm labor

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soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. mickimause

    '...scholar of social ethics' Hm. Translated, does that mean she's never held a job?
    I'm not a farmer. Didn't grow up on a farm. Have the utmost respect for those that are/did. They make it possible for the rest of us to eat.
    Exploitation is one thing – learning to do what your parents/grandparents have done for years is something totally different. I completely support farmers teaching their children, in whatever manner they feel appropriate, how to farm, how to raise animals, how to operate 'hazardous' equipment, how to save, and how to support themselves. Entirely too much of the population of this country has a sense of entitlement that would choke an elephant.
    Don't get me started on the 'hazardous' equipment debate – we let them drive cars/trucks at 16 or younger, and farm kids get far more education in the opeation of farm equipment than even the most rigorous driver's education classes provide to aspiring drivers.
    Government, MYOB.

    January 24, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  2. Blair

    Yes the meager pay that I received growing up on a farm does need to be reevaluated. Not only did my parents pay me and put aside a savings account for me, they put me through college and now have a succesful business that I can inherit some day. If anything I was overpaid. If you include the pay I received, tuition, books, gas, vehicle, and an awesome inheritance, including the work ethics I learned, I think I still have many hours of work that I owe them!

    January 21, 2013 at 2:50 am |
  3. What?

    Dr. Traina apparently has a Ph.D. in theology and actually is in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern U. I don't know anything about her, but I somehow doubt that she has ever spent any appreciable "hands-on" time on a farm.

    She apparently isn't taking into account the fact that it is a federal law that "children" attend school until they are at least 16 years of age, therefore – unless they are 'home-schooled', there are no children in this country who could put in 10-hour days on a farm during the school year, with the exception of weekends and school holidays.

    She apparently doesn't know much about how some farming works, either. I suspect that nearly every dairy farmer in this country would be perfectly happy with 'only' working 10-hour days during the summer months. I also know that if one is baling hay the "old way" – in 50-80 lb square bales – on rolling ground where a kicker- baler isn't an option that a 10-hour day would be an extremely short day. This is especially true if the hay is mature, there's 50 acres or more of good hay to bale, and rain is expected in 3-4 days.

    She obviously doesn't know that when one owns a farm and farms for a living that "union" mandates don't apply. You have an electrical problem, you don't have time to wait for an 'electrician' to come and check the problem, or you call 'maintenance' or 'house-keeping', or whomever is "appropriate" depending on the the job description. And you sure as hades don't "punch out" just because the clock says 8 hours or 8.5 have passed.

    In short, this lady probably doesn't have a flipping clue about all the dynamics and factors involved in a serious farming operation, nor the complexities involved if one is multi-faceted, with either animals involved or short-term crops mixed with full-season crops. She's primarily trying to push her 'philosophy' on the entire farming industry.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • Betty Coning

      Amen brother. The average American knows absolutely nothing about what actually goes on, on the farm. My husband has plowed the fields until midnight , come home and eat and back up at 4:00AM ready to go again. How many are tough enough to do this? The average American farmer feeds 167 people.

      February 5, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  4. Leslie

    I am curious if Ms. Traina has children and what is expected of them as far as chores in the home. I cannot think of a better way to teach children work ethics than Family Farming. I read each comment and the majority are very happy and cherish the farming lifestyle. Farming has been around since the beginning of time, and from what I can see children today could benefit from the lessons and closeness that working together as a family has to offer. I can honestly say I wouldn't trade the skills I learned from helping my parents for anything. Yes it was hard at times and I'm sure at times I resisted but I know that those skills are instilled in me forever far more than anything I ever read in a text book. I also wanted to share a link to a page from Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. about Teaching Work Ethics a great read. http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/teaching-a-work-ethic/

    January 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
  5. DanG

    She needs to do a lot more research
    I believe many of her statements are untrue, They definitely do not pertain in New Jersey.

    January 20, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  6. Shane

    Seriously? I grew up on a family farm and enjoyed working. I learned valuable life lessons about responsibility, ethics, morals and was humbled. My best memories are of helping my family put food on the table. I see so many city kids that sit on their butt and do nothing, ridiculous. You left wing liberals need to get a job or find something to do rather than go around looking for good things to mess up.

    January 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  7. Tim

    Wow! 68% funded with 21 days to go!! On our way guys. Did someone say 80 degrees in February! If we keep this pace we got this project in the bag! : )

    January 20, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  8. Dirt Road Charm

    My family farms and I grew up on a farm. I can honestly tell you that the life lessons I learned by helping and working with my dad have gotten me farther in my career than anything I learned in a text book. I find it hard to believe a social ethics scholar has a real understanding of what goes on on a farm. I am all for protecting children from danger and my father never put us in a postion where he thought we would be in danger. Trying to eliminate the next generation from working on the farm will be of no benefit to anybody. I can confidently say that half of the info in this article is false and far from the truth. If you want to find out what children do on their family farms.....ask them. Don't sit here and show me your statistics of what you "think" is happening.

    January 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  9. zweberfarms

    I am a dairy farmer with three young children. Safety for our children is our number on priority. This issue has been discussed in many arenas and takes many forms. The most compelling (which this article does not address) is the issue of immigrant labors being forced to use their children. That issue I know nothing about and I hope to learn more and how we can protect those children.
    Instead all I can speak to is how things work on our farm. Our kids farm with us because it is the safest thing we can do for them. Sticking them in front of the TV while my husband and I care for our animals is not the ideal way for them to learn respect for animals, machinery and other dangers that are literally in their back yards. All of our children have farmed with us since day one, strapped securely in the Bojorn. Also, farming with my children gives me the opportunity to talk with them, show them values (like hardwork) and also spend some quality time together. Since dairy farming is almost a 24/7 job we will take any quality time together, even if it means all riding in the tractor while dad finishes cutting hay.
    I don't know any children that the author describes above. Of the thousands of family farmers I know (many who have commented above) make sure that safety is number one on their farms. They also don't treat their children as slaves. In fact, doing farm chores is considered an honorable way to learn values like hard work, determination, maturity, respect.
    You can learn more about what we consider Child Farm Labor on our farm: http://zweberfarms.com/child-farm-labor-zweber-farms-style/

    January 20, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  10. cowboyup1876

    I don't think Dr. Traina is sees the unintended consequences of what she is advocating. Yes, if there are children that are being forced to work for other people, of course that is wrong. For example, if a parent on drugs makes the child work to support their drug habit, then we as a society should stop that from happening. But a blanket ban on kids working on farms isn't the solution. Agriculture work is oftentimes the only work a teenager can get in rural communities. Also, many teens live in town, but would like to get involved in agriculture. How else can they do that without working for someone else?

    As far a safely is concerned, although we make strides to stay safe, it is dangerous work by nature. Large equipment and large animals can cause harm. That's why we've promoted for safety for youth for years through community events and PBS commercials. We aren't ignoring it by any means, and we certainly don't need OSHA to explain safety to us.

    Instead of creating new regulation that bans all farm work for kids, let's focus on the actual abuses, and utilize existing laws in the instances of abuse.

    January 20, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  11. Kyle Stull

    You couldn't have kept me off the tractor, still can't. I learned at 12 and its a passion you wouldn't understand. I am who I am now due to my upbringing and I wouldn't change a thing.

    January 20, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  12. Ryan Goodman

    I shed many gallons of sweat and received many cuts and bruises as a kid working with family and neighbors on farms and ranches. I also learned the value of hard work and many life lessons during that time and I know I am a better person for it. Should this really be an issue for "social ethics" scholars or our politicians to decide upon? Not until they've spent more time with the folks who've experienced it. Rather than restricting the building of worth ethics and appreciation for life, our time would be better spent worrying about the kids whose parents allow them to sit indoors in front of a computer or television screen all day.

    Agriculture is a very technical and skilled field of work (just like many other labor forces in this country) and to deny our future generations the ability to learn these skills and advice in a hands-on manner would be a disgrace to our country and future agriculture production. It takes a life time of learning to obtain these skills and they're not all something we can learn in a classroom. Oh wait, we continually take agriculture out of the classroom as well...

    January 20, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • Git-R-Done Ranch

      Well said Ryan!!

      January 20, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  13. SlowMoneyFarm

    By the time I was 10 I could safely operate the tractor, handle the cattle, was in charge of tattoo identification and tagging of young calves and did other chores including weeding, painting and working with fencing. I learned life's not always fair. And while some criticize those jobs, when you get out of the city there's not as many fast food places to work. Some work part time at a neighbor's to earn money for that first car, and for the upkeep of it once bought. Being able to mow and work more than punching a time clock has been an asset. Learning to stick with something means not giving up – on life, on people, on pets and much more. You find a way to make it work. What do kids learn at fast food places?

    Two years ago my godson came to live with us. He was finding trouble and starting down a road paved with money and getting more doing as little as possible to get it. He's learned – slowly – that taking care of equipment pays, and hand work moving manure, learning to work on small engines, and other tasks will prepare him for our expansion. He's learned to keep records and how confusing it is to not have them. He's learned that a day of hard work is the best sleeping aid known to man. And he's not gotten in trouble. No rides home from the police, no attitudes and issues. And if that is considered it's something more kids need. More respect for others. He's grown into a young man that in a couple of years can be trusted with a car. He'll learn the value of money on how difficult it is to earn it and the feeling of satisfaction in doing so. That's something no government program provides, and no one should take away. We don't have the means to get him to a job in town, but he could help on some farms, providing that the laws remain as they are.
    Hand up or hand out? Isn't there enough entitlement?

    January 20, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  14. urbanfooddude (@agrospheric)

    Unless you've experienced it firsthand, don't act like you know what you're talking about.

    I understand that it's important to discuss issues, but this was clearly written by someone who have no concept of what actually happens on farms and in farmers' lives.

    Yet, for some reason, here the story is . . . smh . . . .

    And someone made a comment about heading the opposite direction in terms of "protecting" young people from the potential risks that might be encountered during agricultural work. That person should write the next Eatocracy blog because he/she/it is correct.

    Celebrate the many different farmer lifestyles.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  15. Suzie Wilde

    My sister and I grew up at a cotton gin, with most of my friends growing up on farms. We all went straight home from after school basketball and football practices to work, until it was dark and time to go in to have dinner. We did home work, slept and got up the next morning to do it all over again. We learned at very, very early ages how to be safe, stay safe and work safe on the farms and at the gin. We also learned at a very, very early age how to earn our own money, save it for those first old beat up trucks we bought and how to keep working hard for the rest of our lives.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  16. Danny

    It would be good to hear what Christina Traina's background on agriculture is. Does she have any experience with farm work? Where has she gotten her scary statistics? how exactly does she come by the "maybe 400,000" number? Where was she raised, and did she ever work as a child? Did she learn through working as a child it is not something that will hurt your development, it can actually teach you many good life lessons?

    Let us hear more about the Authors actual background, not her job title or education. These sources of bias are very important to how people understand agriculture, and from what I just read the author does not understand agriculture.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  17. Virginia Veg.

    I learned to work the fields and operate machinery when I was 6 yrs old. It was great to work with my daddy and grandaddy in a business that sustained our family. It taught me responsibility and how rewarding it is when you accomplish something. I know hundreds of farm kids that would be brokenhearted if they couldn't work with their dads and moms on the farm, all because some distant, out of touch, politician decided to create some arbitrary law about something he knows very little about. Washington, knock it off! All this will accomplish is a new generation that has no practical skills. Agriculture is one of the few strong industries remaining in our economy, maybe we should nurture it, not pick it apart. If you like imported oil, you're going to love imported food!

    January 20, 2013 at 8:17 am |
  18. FieldsofDreams

    I as well grew up working alongside my grandfather on our family farm. I was operating equipment routinely around the age of 12 and safely did so. I learned the skills necessary to operate it by spending hundreds if not thousands of hours alongside my grandfather learning how...not because I was forced labor but because I had a passion for learning and this was an outlet for that. I shudder at the thought of a regulator coming in and taking that away from me as a kid. My energies may have been turned into who knows what? I was never in danger and to this day am thankful for my experiences and hope to teach my son in the same manner soon...with his safety always at the forefront! Don't regulate agriculture more...it won't decrease farm related injuries at all. Why would you destroy one of the remaining pillars of the family part of family farming?

    January 20, 2013 at 8:07 am |
  19. farmin' firefighter

    I also learned to drive a tractor before age 10, and before that I greased equipment. Was I a slave laborer? Hardly!
    1. I was paid a wage consistent with the job I was doing (and was also encouraged to build my savings)
    2. I liked, no LOVED, being around the equipment
    3. I got to spend a lot of time with my father and grandfather, and I am lucky enough to continue to work with them every day still; though my grandfather is mostly retired he still comes up to the shop every day to talk and see what's going on, and at 79 he still keeps 15 head of beef for the family and to sell to local customers.
    I consider myself extremely to have grown up on a farm where I learned the value of hard work, education, and above all- Family. Not many places where a child can learn all those at home these days.

    January 20, 2013 at 7:50 am |
  20. rural america

    I too started to learn farming by 6or7 yrs old. Operated farm tractor by 8or9yrs, not the loader or power take off equipment. I learned by not being allowed to operate them there may be danger. So until I showed understanding and maturity did not operate them. I found the experience rewarding and self satisfying I learned to enjoy working and accepting a challenge.
    I did not entertain myself with video games, ipods, ipads, did not even have a cell phone. I am 50 yrs old now and just learning texting my daughter is 14 she has been texting for 2-3 yrs now with no problem carrying on a text conversation with her mother and father at the same time, I still struggle with efficiently producing a meaningful conversation before the person on the receiving end falls asleep, which brings me to my point. When we are younger we learn the subtle things that are only comprehended by observing, for those still involved in ag you know what I mean. Those that did not pickup on those subtle things that make true ag people ag producers. you have found some other career path.
    There were days I spent 10 hours per day with my dad yes, I would stop short of saying routinely. I enjoyed my childhood as many of my fellow agriculture producers would agree they enjoyed theirs. I have few regrets for what I learned. To focus and concentrate on the task at hand and avoid danger which has gotten me to where i am today as I use my skills everyday driving in a town with drivers that do not know what a stop sign is or what the dangers might be for violating. Several life lessons are learned during youth years laboring in agriculture. Many of which you cannot put a minimum wage or any wage price tag on.
    Since the school lunch program is included in the farm bill I would suppose the statistics for your concerns for the welfare of children maybe more convincing to the masses if you/ they included the dangers and abuses to children under the age of 16 (that we pay them no wage for) that are injured in sports that we in society have somehow come to accept the dangers imposed on children to improve our youths athletic ability in hopes that someday they get the chance (slim at best) to play a collegiate or " professional " sport and beat each others brains out to the delight of many who pay millions for beer, hotdogs,tv commercials etc. and see many with career ending injuries carried out on a John Deere Gator now that is cool, lets see more of that. I believe that may fall into the entertainment industry, as the only links to ag that I see is the school lunch program and the John Deere Gator.
    I myself have many memories from my youth growing up with agriculture, a world that people that did not grow up with will never understand. Ask anyone in production agriculture today if they would trade their youth for any other way and i believe you will see why producers today are trying their hardest to be efficient stewards feeding so many despite the actions of many to disrupt the continuation of a life long learning experience. I truly doubt many that did not grow up in agriculture can say what the name of the first video game they played let alone how old they were when they completed the first level.
    Agriculture has a big job to do in the future we need people who are excited , educated and experienced to work and care for animals and environment.
    Let's find a way to instill a solid work ethic for our future and develop programs to benefit youth in agriculture so they may continue providing a safe stable supply of food for America and the world.
    Lack of a solid responsible workforce for agriculture is the problem, we are using workers that are unskilled, uneducated and inexperienced for safe operation necessary in agriculture.
    Growing up in agriculture is a experience shared by many from the past that to few will be allowed to experience in the future. I
    have little doubt there are areas of agriculture that exploit youth. Those youth will grow through the experience and live to correct those areas that need correction, but to blanket convict agriculture for exploiting young students of agriculture and depriving many of an education for a lifelong career is not progress either. I am not real sure who coined this phrase but it has been one I have learned and lived by in my life long education in agriculture "If you are not part of the solution you must be part of the problem"
    Through out my school career I did manage to learn to read and write to which this response I attribute to my parents and school teachers. However imperfect my grammer and puncuation spelling is. I have found in my adult years how imperfect the world is also. Yet we all seem to be living our dreams or at least have the right to. Sorry, to Mrs. Kline, Mrs Flood, Mrs Jessen I think you did your best to english educate me. I hope you all get my point.
    May God Bless American Agriculture

    January 20, 2013 at 5:31 am |
  21. friendsofwudl

    I guess it is a philosophical debate: Should children be taught to be productive, hard working members of society? Our society is making it very difficult for children to learn how to work. No, children should not be abused or taken advantage of. But we do need to be teaching work ethics and skills to the younger members of society. By the time I was in 8th grade I was competent to operate a tractor by myself and work alone in the field. Our society is denying children the ability to develop skills and confidence.

    Imposing these urban work laws on a rural culture is a mistake. In reality we need to be moving the other direction. We need to be finding ways to allow our younger members of society the opportunity to work and learn and develop the way kids on family farms are now.

    January 20, 2013 at 4:31 am |
  22. Urbanmnfarmer

    I have spent my life farming, yes from about the age of 6 or 7 I worked along side my dad and grandfather. Those moments are things I will never forget, they are what made me who I am today. I am now the next generation of farmer raising my two daughters farming at my side and there grandfathers side. Farming is not something you can get a degree for and think your going to make it. Farming takes a lifetime to learn. Please don't take away my daughters rights to learn to farm with me! We need the next generation.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:53 am |
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