Friday, April 27, 2012

Obama of Sunnybrook Farm

I don't know which is worse: the fact that the Obama Administration has scrapped protections for child farm workers, or the fact that this craven act has engendered so little outrage.

Human Rights Watch, though, has just issued a scathing report on the Labor Department's abandonment of a policy that would have protected minors from dangerous working conditions on farms, bluntly stating that our leaders are condemning vulnerable children to maiming and death. Conventional corporate media spin has it that the White House was the victim of a right wing disinformation campaign by Sen. John Thune and others, accusing it of waging a war against family farms, the American work ethic, moms and apple pie. They had no choice but to crumble! However, the proposed regulations would only have applied to farm employees under the age of 16 -- not to the children of farmers. Family farms, to the extent that they have survived predation by Agribusiness, would have been exempt. Obama never even fought back.

Yet again, this Administration has "caved" to Republican and corporate pressure because it does not want to be maligned as anti-family farm, anti-Heartland. However, what nobody is talking about (yet) is that the proposed rules would have adversely affected big tobacco farms in those all-important swing states of North Carolina and Virginia. Tobacco farmers employ migrant workers, and migrant workers bring along the kids to help out and make more money. They get paid by the bushel, and do not earn a regular salary. Among the new rules the Labor Dept. had been due to enforce was a provision prohibiting minors from exposure to toxic tobacco plants and the equally toxic pesticides used to protect them. Barring children from the harvest would have cut into the bottom line of R.J. Reynolds. Barring children from de facto slavery might have evoked the wrath of the powerful tobacco lobby. Protecting children from nicotine poisoning in the fields might have spawned a whole slew of anti-Obama SuperPac ads in Virginia and North Carolina -- two states crucial to his re-election. 

Although the president has been a public critic of Big Tobacco (his Justice Dept. fought back against cigarette makers' fight to keep warning labels and graphics off the packages) he also has had no qualms accepting money from donors enriched by the cancer-causing industry. The late Smith Bagley, heir to the R.J. Reynolds fortune, was a major Democratic fund-raiser and Obama bundler. Obama appointed his equally generous widow, Elizabeth, to a "global ambassadorship" at the State Department. She had been ambassador to Portugal during the Clinton Administration.

Of course, this big money/political rationale for throwing migrant farmworkers' children under the bus is pure conjecture on my part. I gave up trying to delve into the presidential psyche a long time ago. Who really cares what his reasons are, when the results of his reasoning are what really count. And who can be surprised by this latest deregulatory action from an administration that has already condemned thousands of asthmatic children to suffering and death by punting on smog regulations last year?

That may sound harsh, but it is no harsher than this embrace of Dickension child labor abuses by a Democratic administration. As Zama Coursen-Neff, HRW's deputy director of children's rights puts it in her report:  
The US Labor Department has caved in to Big Agriculture and their allies in Congress to abandon the most vulnerable working children in America. Instead of protecting child farmworkers, the Labor Department will look the other way when children get crushed, suffocated, and poisoned on the job.


Agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Children risk pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and heat illness. In 2010, the latest figures available, 16 children under age 16 were fatally injured at work in the US; 12 of them worked on farms. Thousands more are injured each year.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, child farmworkers have described working with heavy machinery, including tractors; falling from ladders; exposure to pesticides and experiencing symptoms consistent with pesticide poisoning; working in extreme heat to the point of dehydration; and “topping” and harvesting tobacco, risking nicotine poisoning, known as green tobacco sickness.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the US Department of Labor bears responsibility for determining what jobs are particularly hazardous, and thus off limits, for children under age 16 working on farms that are not owned or operated by their parents. Current rules, known as “hazardous orders,” which were drafted decades ago, prohibit operating certain equipment, working in areas with certain animals, working from a ladder at a height of over 20 feet, and applying the most toxic agricultural chemicals.
According to OSHA, most farm accidents happen to people over 65 and under 16. Three hundred children are killed on American farms every year. (Most child deaths are not related to work, per se; the OSHA numbers reflect all accidental deaths on farms. These might include household accidents, animal mishaps, motor vehicle accidents.) Adolescents already have a false sense of invincibility and usually don't have the maturity to operate heavy machinery safely. Tractor overturns are the most common farm accident, accounting for 44% of all fatalities. Most farms are located far from emergency medical facilities and ambulances usually take a long time to arrive. They are often too late.  

In case you were wondering what the Obama Administration has to say for itself -- well, not very much. The president can't even take his usual easy way out and blame Congress. Here is the official spin:
"The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," the Labor Department said in a statement announcing the withdrawal of the rule.
"The Obama administration is also deeply committed to listening and responding to what Americans across the country have to say about proposed rules and regulations."
(Hint: the day before the decision, Sarah Palin complained on Facebook that President Obama was not pro- working family values and family entrepreneurial togetherness. Enter damage control, exit rules against damaging children.)

The Happy-Talk Bullshit

The Grim Reality (from the film La Cosecha (The Harvest)


4Runner said...

Karen, thanx much for this excellent post (as usual). I was a child farmworker in Connecticut, starting at age 14 when I was issued a summer permit to work on a large organic tobacco farm. It was stoop labor, picking leaves of the plants from 6 AM - 6 PM, 6 days/week, June thru August. It was hard and dirty labor, but somehow I have pleasant memories of it all. The best of it were the working conditions, where we were supervised by Jamaican strawbosses. From them I first heard worksongs of the Caribbean that were sung call-and-response across the rows of plants while we picked. I'm sure everyone knows that "the blues" originated in field songs of the South. Well, we had a Northern version with a reggae beat. But there was, as you mentioned, an unhealthy downside. Yes, this was not Sunnybrook farm, either. I still recall arriving home totally exhausted, my hands and forearms black with nicotine residue that took a ton of scrubbing in the shower. My lungs somehow survived.
I know my experience must seem idyllic compared with what transpires today on mechanised factory farms. And that's a darned shame, because honest farm work can teach lessons in teamwork and camaraderie that are lost to today's youth.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Why do I wince every time I hear the 'TLOTE' pitch?

From Wiki: “Children who work on farms or in fields spend on average 30 hours a week, even during times of the year when school is in session. Of the children who work on farms, 50% of them will not graduate from high school.”

I can't underline, bold or italicize here so I'll repeat a stunning phrase: "...on average 30 hours a week...." "The Harvest" documentary paints an even darker picture.

Wiki goes on to report that Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (34th District, CA) introduced the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act, HR 3564) bill in September 2009. The act addresses the harshest conditions that tens of thousands of children may be subject to. The intention of the bill was to raise the standards for children working in agriculture to those of any other occupation in the United States. As of 1 September 2010 the bill had 103 co-sponsors.

Also in September 2009, a panel discussion on the Roybal-Allard bill was hosted by President Obama’s new Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis. In addition to migrant worker representatives and government experts from the Labor Department, the panel included the filmmakers working on “The Harvest,” which was released in 2011.

From what Karen has just written, it appears the CARE Act is very, very dead, like so many other promises for change from 2009. In fact, Obama’s new regs for children working in the fields turns the clock BACK on child labor laws and sets standards LOWER than the ones in existence through the Bush years, the standards Royal-Allard was trying to improve.

Frances Perkins revolves in her grave. Do you suppose any of those 103 sponsors will sound a peep, or whether Hilda Solis will do a Robert Reich and bail out?

Why do I laugh every time I type out 'TLOTE'?

Karen Garcia said...

Labor Sec. Hilda Solis looks mighty grim in her recent photos. May she and her boss be haunted by the ghost of Frances Perkins. Meanwhile, if you want a very grim laugh, be sure to read Gail Collins on the privatization of eddycayshun. It is one of her best columns in a long while, because she doesn't mention presidential candidates. My response:(read her column first, or my comment will make zero sense)

Here's a multiple choice question for a standardized test: If our education system is run like a business by corporate stooges with no teaching credentials, which of the following applies? (Pick one, none, or all, depending on your cynicism):

a) The USA will sprint to first place in the global Race to the Bottom.

b) Public schools in poorer neighborhoods will be closed by the thousands and certified, gifted and caring teachers thrown to the curb.

c) School taxes on the properties of rich people will plummet.

d) It won't matter, because rich people will have even more money to send their own children to private schools.

e) Patriotic gazillionaires will donate free laptops to all the poor kids who no longer have any schools. Their electrical service may be spotty due to poverty and crumbling infrastructure, but a philanthropist can only do so much.

f) The privatized and ever-bloated Prison- Industrial Complex will become home to a huge chunk of the poor kids with the useless laptops who have turned to petty crime and self-medication to ease their pain. The corporate stooges will make even more money because they will now have a ready made, publicly funded slave labor force.

g) Globalization Rulz! The 99% will get used to the new normal, a Hobbesean life that is poor, nasty, brutish and short. If you can't make it, you didn't try. The official national motto becomes "Share the Sacrifice."

h) Pineapples.

Denis Neville said...

Our Harvest of Shame/Slavery by Another Name

Agriculture continues to be the most dangerous industry for children to work in. Of a total 22,648 agricultural-related injuries that occurred in youths under the age of 20, the highest percentage, 46 percent, of all injuries occurred to youths between the ages of 10 and 15. Three-quarters of the children who died while working for wages last year were killed while working on farms. The Child Labor Coalition estimated that the proposed revisions would save the lives of 50 to 100 child farmworkers per year.

Instead the Obama Administration scrapped these protections for child farm workers.

Where is the outrage?!!!

“This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.’” - Edward R. Murrow, “Harvest of Shame,” CBS News, 1960

When Stephen Colbert testified before Congress on immigrant farm workers, he was asked why he cared about this issue, of all issues. He replied, “I like talking about people who don't have any power. It seems like some of the least powerful people in the U.S. are those who come to the U.S. and do our work and don't have any rights when they're here. And then we ask them to leave ... I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish the widespread effects of the recession ... but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Our hypocrisy! We bite the (undocumented, migrant, underpaid, underfed, slave, or child) hand that feeds us.

“We have suffered unnumbered ills and crimes in the name of the Law of the Land. Our men, women and children have suffered not only the basic brutality of stoop labor, and the most obvious injustices of the system; they have also suffered the desperation of knowing that the system caters to the greed of callous men and not to our needs.” - Cesar Chavez

Anonymous said...

Whenever a commodity is very abundant its value plummets. With 7 billion people on the planet, human labor is cheapened; there is always another country, state, village somewhere with inhabitants who will work for lower wages. Another race to the bottom!

Kat said...

My guess is that worker safety is a non starter-- nothing to go out on a limb for. I realized this when there was relatively little outrage following the Hamlet chicken processing plant fire in 1991.

good comment on the Gail Collins column. Yes, she actually wrote about something important. Too bad it does not go far in mitigating the damage done by the NYT in their campaign to promote "school reform" and charters over the years.

Valerie said...

Great post, Karen. It really complements Neil's post yesterday.

Again, the issue is the REAL cost of food and who is paying for it - certainly NOT the consumer buying at the register. We MUST be willing to devote more of our budget to buying food and to demand that our food is raised in a healthy, natural way and the people who tend our farms are treated with respect and fairness.

‘We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.’” - Edward R. Murrow, “Harvest of Shame,” CBS News, 1960 - What a tragic quote that should shame us all.

As always, it is hard to tell the difference between Obama and a Republican - Sarah Palin in this instance.

Valerie said...

I just went back and read Neil's excellent closing comment on the previous post. I have to quote it here because it fits in so perfectly with what is being addressed here.

"I see parallels in the mistreatment of farm animals, and the commodification of ordinary people into consumers for corporations to milk-dry. Farm animals are supposedly protected by the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958. People are supposedly protected by the constitution and consumer laws. But somehow those laws don’t offer much protection. Our government, along with corporations, banks, mortgage companies, and health insurance companies, often treat us like some hapless animal being led off to slaughter."

Not only do I see parallels in the mistreatment of farm animals and the commodification of ordinary people into consumers, Neil, these farm workers and children seem to be seen as no better than the animals that are treated so brutally. It is clear they are seen as commodities to use up and throw away like old garbage. The mentality is so feudal and we should all be sickened by it.

Neil Gillespie said...

Tractor rollovers are a big problem. I recall a fellow student who’s leg was crushed in a tractor rollover. He missed most of the eight grade. Our class wrote letters to him as he recuperated. Others do not survive tractor rollovers, like this 12-year-old boy.

"A 12-year-old boy working part-time for a farmer was killed when he lost control and overturned a tractor in a 12 foot deep roadside ditch. The victim was driving downhill on a slightly sloping gravel road, came to the bottom of the hill, and approached an uphill. At this point the road had a culvert and deep ditches dropping off sharply at the edge of the road. For some reason the boy drove too close to the right edge and fell into the ditch causing the tractor to roll completely. The tractor was approximately 10 years old and had no ROPS or seatbelt. The tractor was pulling an empty feed wagon which sheared off at the hitch and was also pulled into the ditch, however, did not overturn. The boy was crushed under the left rear wheel and fender of the tractor and died from asphyxiation due to crush injury. There were no obvious environmental factors contributing to the incident, nor failure of the equipment. However, the tractor’s seat was adjusted in the back position, making the distance from the seat to the brakes too long for this driver. The loader frame may have obstructed the drivers view of the front wheels making it difficult to see the exact position of the front wheel and the edge of the road."

ROPS = Rollover Protection System - a roll bar

The New York Agri-Women website reports the following on injuries:

- Each year, four out of every 100,000 American workers die on the job. But in the farming industry, the rate is 28.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers. That is way to many of "us" who lose their life working to produce food to feed the world.

-The tractor is the leading cause of death on the farm. The most frequent cause of tractor-related deaths are side and rear overturns.

-Farmers in the Northeast experience the highest rates of overturn death in the country.

-80% of rollover deaths happen to experienced farmers.

-Roll Over Protective Structures are 99% effective in preventing injury or death in the event of an overturn when used with a seatbelt (95% effective without a seatbelt).

The Doktor said...

While I agree with the sentiments expressed here that this legislation was necessary and probably not enough, the sad fact is that we are in a democracy. That democracy has been co-opted by very powerful multi-national corporations who have systematically taken over the media so as to always have a certain amount of control over any real messaging. Fear mongering, propaganda and demagoguery work. For all of our technological progress, we as a species have made damned little emotional progress. We are still fearful, superstitious and in many cases easily manipulated by those in a position of authority. Liberals are at a distinct disadvantage in that we typically will give opposing viewpoints a hearing while conservatives typically won't. I saw a really good article in the Washington Post the other day titled "Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem."
They make some really good points, and to a certain extent I think they're right.

I tried to link the article but the site wouldn't let me. It's by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein 4/27/2012