Child Labor? Oh Please. Let’s Just Call it What it Really is!

Recently the U.S. Department of Labor proposed revisions that would prohibit children younger than 16 from operating power-driven equipment and those under the age of 18 from working livestock.  Proponents say the proposed rules are to protect children, according to a Globe Gazette article, as well as to make agriculture and non-agriculture “child labor” provisions similar.

Child Labor brings to mind images of enslaved children working in sweatshops in Third World countries.  It doesn’t conjure images – like the ones pictured here – of children who grow up with an appreciation of caring for animals and knowing how to produce the world’s safest food supply.

As a former 4-H and FFA member, I understand firsthand how every day is “bring your child to work day” on the farm.  More information is caught rather than taught as young children walk in their parents’, grandparents’, aunts’ and uncles’ shadows as they learn from doing.

Laura Cunningham, marketing coordinator for Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, grew up raising cattle on her family’s North Central Iowa farm. Following in her brother Eric’s footsteps, Laura raised beef for her FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience project, which contributed to her passion for livestock production. Today she and her husband have their own cow-calf operation.

I started bottle feeding lambs as soon as I was big enough to help and learned the importance of putting others’ well being ahead of your own.  After all, we couldn’t eat until our chores were done!  I literally counted down the days until I could show my first lamb at the county fair, and in short fashion, I learned the importance of genetics and good breeding.  For the next 10 years, my family and I worked to improve the quality of our herd.

My parents and I traipsed through snowdrifts in the dark to check on ewes about to lamb.  They allowed me to help with vaccinations, too.  It was my job to fill the syringe, and when I got older, I was able to give the injections.  I also became quite handy with the bander, although I never quite mastered the hoof trimmer!

Our flock allowed my parents and I ro spend lots of time together, plus I made so many great friends through our shared 4-H and FFA experiences.  Many of my 4-H and FFA friends and acquaintances remain business contacts and industry associates today.

As a result of these experiences, I learned to accept responsibility at an early age and gained a sense of accomplishment at the end of a job well done.  Farm chores helped build my character and helped me develop a strong work ethic.  I also earned FFA proficiency awards, as well as state 4-H awards for agricultural careers and sheep production.  Is it any wonder that I would want the same for my children?

My kids began caring for bottle lambs at their grandparents’ farm when they were 5 years old. The proposed rule changes, however, would prohibit kids under 16 or 18 years old from doing farm work for anyone other than their parents. That means kids like mine, who don’t live on a farm, would be robbed of valuable work experiences.

My children started fourth grade this fall and are now eligible to become full-fledged 4-H members.  We’ve purchased an acreage where they can keep their 4-H livestock projects, as well as raise pumpkins.  My hope is that they’ll learn the value of a dollar and be less inclined to buy a myriad of video games when they think about how many pumpkins or how many lambs they have to sell in order to purchase just one gaming system or video game.

Our hopes could be dashed, however, if the proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act are enacted.  In the name of safety, my budding entrepreneurs and aspiring 4-H members won’t have the same opportunities as I had to achieve that same sense of accomplishment.  The U.S. Department of Labor’s proposed changes would prohibit children younger than 18 from working with animals.  They’d also be prohibited from working for a L.L.C. or any top of legal family farming entity.

Please learn more about how your family or the structure of your family’s farming operation could be impacted by the proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Then take the time to make your voice heard. To submit written comments, reference RIN 1235-AA06 in your letter and mail it to:

The Wage and Hour Division
U.S. Department of Labor, Room S-3502
200 Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C.  20210

Click here to submit your comments online.