On April 30, 2012 the associated press wrote a story titled “Move to kill planned rules on child farm labor draws criticism.” The article tells readers the Obama administration has abandoned a proposal to restrict the use of child labor on dangerous farm jobs. Restrictions for 16 year olds banned them from operating power driven farm machinery especially tractors, working at heights to protect against falls, and from castrating farm animals. Other limitations among 15 new rules banned 18 year olds from working in grain silos, feet lots and stock yards. Exemptions allowed exclusion for children working on their parent’s farm.
Proponents argued that four times more children are killed while performing farm work than those in all other industries combined. Republican opponents called the plan “impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.” Democrat Al Franken from a farm state offered his opposition. Sarah Palin chimed in from her Facebook page with her own apocalyptic worry: “If I wanted America to fail, I’d ban kids from farm work.” Gee?
The American Farm Bureau waxed sentimental because “the new prohibitions would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates.
We could suppose the Farm Bureau slipped up here when they worried about reducing cost because the quoted comments sound mostly intended to divert attention from the true purpose of their opposition: cheap labor.
Access to cheap immigrant labor helped reduce farm costs for a number of years, but Republicans have always had to fake their opposition to immigration because part of their right wing constituents don’t like it, even though their agri-business and corporate farm constituents do. Now that cheap immigrants are harder to find, the Republicans need to find some new source of cheap labor.
The article mentioned the government’s estimate that 300,000 children were involved out of about 1.4 million the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports working in wage and salary employment in agriculture. Since the government exempted children of family farms we can expect the 300,000 children in question are mostly helping to save money for corporate agriculture.
With 12 million unemployed and quite a few millions more leaving the labor force for lack of work it does appear adult replacements might be found, but possibly not at the pathetic wages big business expects to pay the kids. Since the farm price support subsidies go more and more to agri-business as they become fully integrated companies operating from the farm to the supermarket, we have to expect farm subsidies are much bigger than the difference between adult wages and the low wages to children.
Using child labor goes back many years. Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act way back in 1916. It was an age when the courts were the primary source of aid to business in their eternal quest for cheap labor. With this in mind reformers were careful to craft a bill which relied on the commerce clause of the constitution to prohibit the transportation of products through interstate commerce if they were produced with child labor.
Using authority in the commerce clause was a practical strategy intended to defer to, or satisfy, the judicial review they were certain would come. In previous cases the court repeatedly ruled that the commerce clause of the constitution provided Congress with unqualified powers in the regulation of interstate commerce.
Even though the court had previously upheld a ban on the interstate transportation of adulterated drugs, and another banning the interstate sale of lottery tickets, and another banning the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes, the justices searched for previously unheard of excuses to undo the child labor legislation.
In the Supreme Court case known as Hammer v. Dagenhart the court wrote that the interstate transportation of adulterated drugs, lottery tickets, and prostitutes created “harmful results” but the new law that restricted children under 14 from working more than 8 hours a day, or more than 6 days a week, or before 6 A.M. or after 7 P..M. in textile mills did not create “harmful results” and was therefore beyond the power of Congress to regulate.
In the wrap up to their long and convoluted written opinion the justices declared the Keating-Owen Child Labor act “repugnant” to the constitution. The Supreme Court opinion came on June 3, 1918, or 94 years before Sarah Palin told us America will fail banning kids from farm work. Decide for yourself, but I do not see satisfactory progress in America’s attitudes toward exploiting children, or making excuses for using cheap child labor.