Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.
The Child Labor Coalition is a non-partisan group that is concerned with the health and welfare of children in the U.S. and abroad. We were extremely critical of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw proposed safety protections for children who work in agriculture—known as “hazardous occupations orders.”
We try to call it as we see it and ignore politics. We love any politician who puts children first. But today, we are stunned by the numerous attacks on children by the Trump administration and left wondering what horror is next?
Earlier this month, Customs and Border Patrol announced that it would stop education classes, legal aid, and even recreational activities for children at the border detention facilities housing immigrant children. Detained children have already been traumatized by their arduous journey to the U.S., their subsequent detention, and, in many cases, forced family separation. What Grinch would deny them schooling and playtime?
Institutionalization and family separation constitute traumatic experiences that threaten the physical and mental health of children. The New York Times reported on February 27th that the federal government had received more than 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse of children in immigration facilities over four years, including an increase since the Trump administration began separating families. Shouldn’t we focus our energies on reuniting families and easing the psychological damage that has already been done—not penalizing children even further?
The decision to withhold education and recreation was just the latest salvo in what increasingly seems like a war against children by the Trump administration. We recently learned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had decided to defund children’s health research centers around the U.S. For decades, the centers have brought together researchers and children’s health experts to reduce environmental health risks that children face.
The research centers helped expose the danger of the pesticide chlorpyrifos which damages the development of children’s brains and poses grave health risks to child farmworkers, adult farmworkers, and farmers. EPA had decided to ban the toxic pesticide under the Obama administration, but then reversed the ban under the Trump presidency.
The Trump administration also attempted to reverse an Obama administration ban on children applying pesticides as part of their job on farms. Does our agricultural economy need children to apply pesticides? No. Fortunately, after several months of pursuing the idea, the Trump administration seems to have given up—only to move on to the latest perverse idea.
Recently, the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget officials announced plans to change regulations concerning “agricultural exclusion zones” (AEZs). Under current rules, if a plane or aerator sprays pesticides on a field it must be at least 100 feet from workers in the fields; other applicators must be at least 25 feet from workers. Although not spelled out, everyone is assuming the changes will weaken or eliminate the AEZs–because the Trump administration never acts to increase protections for vulnerable populations.
Some of those field workers who are exposed to spray drift are children toiling with their migrant parents; we also know that the developing bodies of minors are more vulnerable to toxic pesticides than adults. Weakening agricultural exclusion zones will mean more child and adult farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides.
Globally, we’ve made significant progress in the fight against child labor. In the last two decades, the number of children trapped in child labor has fallen to 152 million—a reduction of about 100 million children from two decades ago. This is real progress and the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau has played a role in that reduction—by gathering incredibly detailed reports on the nature of the problem, advising nation’s on how to reduce child labor and by operating child labor reduction programs around the world. At $50 to $55 million a year, we think these child labor programs are a great buy.
Unfortunately, the administration has tried to zero out these vital child labor programs since Trump took office.
Bad ideas about child work continue to percolate within the Trump administration, which wants to allow American teens who work in nursing homes to be allowed to operate mechanized patient lifts without assistance and supervision from adults, which current rules require. Safety experts know that this change would lead to severe injuries to patients and teen workers. As is generally the case, the administration presents no compelling rationale for the change.
We are left wondering what new outrage awaits. Does the health and safety of children mean anything to this administration?