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Agriculture, Child Labor, and Monocultures

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Big agriculture is going to the mat for what really matters–exploiting child labor.

Last year, two teenagers handling a large grain auger had their legs severed while working at the Zaloudek Grain Co. in Oklahoma. The Department of Labor (DOL) proposed rules that might have prevented this tragedy. The rules, designed to curb dangerous child labor in agriculture, were finally unveiled last year after a long delay. The labor changes would preventchildren from working in harsh conditions, including operating heavy machinery.

But as Republic Report noted earlier this year, agricultural industry lobbyists have worked aggressively to cut the DOL’s ability to implement this regulation. We showed how Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), backed by campaign contributions and lobbying support from the farm lobby, circulated a letter to undercut the child labor rules. Now, Senator John Thune (R-SD) has a bill — euphemistically called the Preserving America’s Family Farm Act — that would revoke the DOL’s authority to prevent children from working on farms in dangerous conditions, including in manure pits.

Anytime Denny Rehberg and John Thune are behind a bill, you know it serves the interests of evil.

Speaking of agriculture, Dan Charles has an excellent story at NPR about how agriculture has tried to eliminate e coli outbreaks–by doubling down on the agriculture monoculture, seeking to kill animal in the fields and every plant that might provide the animals shelter. This classically high-modernist approach to agriculture has had major repercussions of its own, including a vast increase in erosion and declining wildlife habitat. It also suggests that the extreme management of the land for a single purpose, even food safety, might not be the best way to think about nature. It is highly unlikely problems with e coli and agribusiness stem from mice or owls; instead, while no one knows how the e coli got in the spinach, it probably comes from somewhere in the industrialized agriculture process. Eliminating the species that naturally occur in fields inherently makes little sense for a healthy nature. But of course, that’s not what agricapitalism has in mind. Any threat to the short-term profit motive must be eliminated, even if it undermines the long-term viability of the industry.

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  • rea

    You don’t think that owls pooping on spinach fields is the problem?

  • Child labor issues aside (and it seems to me that “teenagers” is doing an awful lot of work here), assuming we’re talking about modern machinery, “grain augers” aren’t really all that dangerous outside of a) freak accidents or b) doing something really, really, insanely fucking stupid around one. Not to invoke a cliched meme, but assuming we’re talking about people who are at least reasonably familiar with how to operate one, “teenagers” are probably in a lot more danger operating cars than they are operating grain augers.

    • Rafterman

      Being from the northeast I had to google “grain auger.” Is this what would’ve happened? Maybe seeing some old timer use his leg and imitating his style?

      • If it was a commercial operation they’d probably have a similar style of auger, though larger and with more RPM.

      • BradP

        Yeah. A grain auger is a big screw inside a pipe that carries grain.

        From my experience, typically grain is fed into silos with a series of buckets on a belt that basically runs like a big chainsaw.

        Augers, because they are screws that slice through grain, can handle huge amounts of grain, where a belt fed bucket elevater would get overwhelmed. Therefore, augers are typically used at the bottom of silos to clear them out. Many times I have climbed into a grain bin and shoveled and swept the last bit of corn out of an elevator so we could load soy beans, or vice versa.

        The thing is, I worked for a very small grain elevator in a small farming town, and all of our augurs were covered by heavy steel grating. It would have required a complete avoidance of basic safety to even be in a position where I could possibly get my leg caught.

        Augurs are often used on small farms to carry grain to the top of a silo, and on those farms (like my grandfather’s and uncle’s) the blades and drive mechanism are likely to be more risky and exposed.

  • firefall

    Eliminating other parts of the ecocycle in fields you want to keep using to generate profits? what could go wrong with that?

    As for the child labour exploitation, just another of the myriad steps needed to get back to the good ol’ Gilded Age

  • Warren Terra

    As I recall (and I think most of the coverage I’ve encountered was on the CBC’s As It Happens; I recall nothing in the New York Times, though I don’t follow Agriculture closely), this isn’t even about Child Labor On Family Farms – it’s about Child Labor In Agribusiness. The rule change that has been described as banning child labor on farms only applies to recompensed child labor NOT on a farm owned by the child’s family. So kids would still be free to get caught in Daddy’s threshing machine – just not in the threshing machine of Monsanto Facility #117. The best those opposing the rule can come up with in interviews seemed to be complaints about children on one family farm helping out on the neighbor’s family farm, which the rule would indeed seem to ban – although I’d have thought such arrangements are sufficiently informal as to escape regulations such as these, except for when they’re sufficiently formal that strict regulation is justified.

    • Bill Murray

      further, if they are trading labor (ie my son comes over to your place this week to help and yours comes over to my place next week) involves no recompense so may still be allowable.

  • SpectCon

    Can’t we just bring back chattel slavery, debtor’s prisons and just be done with it already?

    It’s bad enough that we’re reenacting historically stupid policies, but it’s worse that we’re doing it slowly.

    • Yes, teenagers having jobs is so much like chattel slavery we ought to just drop the pretense and repeal the 13th amendment. Preach it!

      • SpectCon

        Let’s not stop there, we need to bring back the manorial system. Serfdom has a bum rap these days.

        • chris y

          Serfdom has a bum rap these days.

          No, it’s hugely popular, they’ve just moved it into the white collar sector where it’s more profitable. They call it interning.

  • ajay

    Last year, two teenagers handling a large grain auger had their legs severed while working at the Zaloudek Grain Co. in Oklahoma. The Department of Labor (DOL) proposed rules that might have prevented this tragedy. The rules, designed to curb dangerous child labor in agriculture, were finally unveiled last year after a long delay. The labor changes would preventchildren from working in harsh conditions, including operating heavy machinery.

    The two teenagers injured were both 17 years old. http://www.feedandgrain.com/news/10630403/oklahoma-grain-facility-cited-for-auger-accident-that-took-two-teenagers-legs

    The new rules apply only to people under 16 years old.

    The statement that the rules “might have prevented this tragedy” is therefore a lie.

    • Also, this:

      “The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Zaloudek Grain Co. with four serious safety violations following an incident involving two 17-year-olds. Both suffered leg amputations when they became caught in an inadequately guarded conveyor auger while cleaning out a grain flat storage structure at the company’s facility in Kremlin.”

      Pretty much exactly what I’d assumed.

    • PhoenixRising

      Hmm. I’m concerned that the horror story associated with this administrative letter is not well matched to the admin issue.

      But I’m a hell of a lot more concerned that it is apparently up to state labor laws to determine whether kids too young to drive, vote or consent to sex are employable in agribusiness. Not on the family farm, which I was and my kid is, but at a grain elevator.

      Given that many of you are familiar with this setting only from the set of ‘Footloose’, I’ll ask that you trust me when I say that my uncles didn’t take us to the elevator until we were quite mature–it’s just too damn dangerous. It’s just nuts to say that kids old enough to work the fryer at Burger King are equally appropriate hires at a manufacturing facility like that.

      • ajay

        But I’m a hell of a lot more concerned that it is apparently up to state labor laws to determine whether kids too young to drive, vote or consent to sex are employable in agribusiness.

        State labour law determines who is allowed to work in a state! We’ll have more on this shocking discovery after these messages.

  • BradP

    How pervasive is the problem of child labor exploitation in the agricultural industry?

    I know many families who farmed and tought their children the trade. That’s kinda the nature of farming, you have the land, livestock, and machinery, and all three are intergenerational. My grandfather, my uncle, and I all were driving farm machinery before we were driving cars. And from what I have read, this bill would bar children under 16 from basic animal husbandry practices and using basic equipment.

    And while I also don’t like corporate agriculture, I have a hard time believing that our government would be any less industrial in their agriculture practices.

    • Katya

      It wouldn’t ban minors from working on the family farm.

      • David M. Nieporent

        Except it would, because proposed regulations redefine “family farm” so narrowly as to exclude farms owned by family corporations or partnerships. Only unincorporated family farms would be covered by the exemption.

        • njorl

          Incorporation isn’t supposed to be a free ride to limited liability. A corporation gains the freedom of limited liability in exchange for greater regulation of its activities.

          • BradP

            I don’t disagree with your statement, but it seems to me that those regulations should be restricted to what is necessary to prevent the exploitation of the privileges and advantages of incorporation.

            • njorl

              That’s what is being done.

              Farm A is owned by a family, and is not incorporated. If they abuse their workers and injure them, they risk judgements which extend to their personal holdings.

              Farm B is owned by a family, but all of the work on the farm is done by a family owned corporation. If they abuse their workers, they only risk losing the assets of the corporation which services the farm. They have much less disincentive to harm their workers, so they require greater regulation.

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  • John H

    The owls are not what they seem.

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