You may have already noticed, but our country is polarized on almost any topic these days. Even when it comes to child safety on farms, the question quickly becomes: whose safety? At what cost? By whose dictate? Depending on how you answer those questions, you can fall into one of two camps: farm owners and their children, or farmworkers and farmworker children employed on farms.
At AFOP, we are in tune with the needs of the farmworker community, as our members provide farmworkers with job training, emergency services, safety training, etc. Unfortunately, farmworkers frequently find themselves at odds with the farm owners and ranchers who employ them (due to lost wages, egregious injuries, inadequate provisions, etc.). When they do, AFOP is their advocate, pushing for the restoration of people’s rights.
I myself am a farmer’s daughter. When I hear stories of farmers acting in bad faith or working their employees to the bone I remember my dad: a man of great faith who would never take advantage of anybody, working no one but himself to the bone. When I hear – and write – about the minimum age for certain activities needing to be raised in order to protect kids on farms, I remember how my brothers and I would BEG our parents to let us drive tractor long before the recommended age (they almost always said no.) When I get reports from Marshfield Research about the latest child fatality on farms, I think of my brother who fell into an auger and broke his leg at the age of six. He was one of the lucky ones.
We sold the farm when I was 12, but my aunt and uncle, Gloria and Carl, are still in the business, raising their kids as I myself was raised: on a dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania. They cannot afford hired help, and so rely heavily on my cousins to pitch in when needed. One of their sons started driving the skidloader when he was only four, and the chisel plow by age 11. Even with a potentially challenging eye condition called nystagmus, he has driven tractors regularly all his life, entirely without incident. The key to safety, Gloria maintains, is to teach kids when they’re young, since “that’s when the passion for the occupation begins.” Have them observe how it’s done, long before they’re allowed to do it themselves. If they’re prevented from doing or being around something until late into their teens, there’s a greater risk of accidents upon suddenly being thrown into it. A lot of farm safety is “common sense,” Gloria said, recognizing that “agriculture always will be a high-risk occupation. Unfortunately, things are going to happen. Nothing is 100% preventable.”
Of course, much of what happens on small, family-owned farms is not directly applicable to farmworker children. Farmworker kids are usually found on much larger operations, where there’s a stronger disconnect between the owner and workers. That’s partly why the US Department of Labor (USDOL) wrote an exemption for family farms into the law when trying to update the Hazardous Occupations for agriculture – classifications that farmworker advocates, including AFOP, saw as a tool for protecting farmworker children. Even so, the proposal touched off a firestorm of public comments from the farming community, which succeeded in derailing the process. Now, we are faced with a question: How do we move forward in our advocacy for farmworker children, while keeping in mind that farm owners will most likely challenge any more proposed government regulation?
Peter O’Driscoll at the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) gave me a hint: start by identifying the multiple stakeholders around this issue. In EFI’s case, it wasn’t just growers and farmworkers, but buyers and consumers as well. After all, the price consumers pay for milk or produce in the store has a direct impact on a farmer’s take-home pay, which in turn affects how much he can afford to pay his workers.
Next, identify common interest. EFI brought all the major stakeholders to the table and found that they agreed on some pretty basic stuff – e.g. that farmworkers driving tractors into manure pits is something everyone wants to avoid.
Third – identify an action that everyone can get on board with, and which makes a difference. EFI got major corporations to sign onto contracts that paid workers pennies more for their work per unit, and which also got them the safety training they needed. This gave the buyers more peace of mind that there were no human rights abuses in their supply chains, even while raising the farmworkers’ standard of living.
So, how do we reach an accord for farmworker children?
- Who are the stakeholders in the debate on farm safety for kids?
- Non-profits like AFOP and CIFC
- government agencies, e.g. USDOL and USDA
- farm owners and employers and their kids
- farmworkers and farmworker children
- farmworker advocates
- What is our common interest? SAFETY
- What are some creative solutions that are palatable to everyone?
AFOP Health & Safety already does a lot of multi-stakeholder collaboration. For example, we are a member of the Child Labor Coalition, which channels various advocates pushing for better work conditions for farmworker children. We also partner with organizations across the country to train thousands of children on our original pesticide safety curriculum: designed especially for kids and written in both English and Spanish.
Another idea is Farm Safety Days, or camps, for kids – an activity that has the potential to draw in multiple stakeholders across the political spectrum. My cousin participated in one such Farm Safety Day when he was five or six. It has never been repeated in their region, unfortunately, but the family still remembers the hands-on activities that showed what happens when, for example, an object gets dropped into a gravity wagon (entrapment and eventual suffocation). Gloria recalls it as a really well-run event, covering activities and equipment her kids saw every day on the farm.
It’s something we can all agree on: all children working around dangerous equipment, whether farm kids or farmworker children, stand to benefit from more high-quality safety training. After all, it’s one thing to show a kid how to do something right, but it’s a lot harder to demonstrate what goes wrong when you don’t.