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Tester, Baucus sponsor bill to prevent child farm labor regulations

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U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., listens to a response Wednesday from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis during a hearing of the Labor, Health & Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee he chairs.

A large group of U. S. senators, including the two from Montana, are moving to block a proposal from the U. S. Department of Labor that would limit what children could do on farms and ranches in the country.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was an original co-sponsor of a bill proposed March 21 by Sen. John Thune, R-S. D., that would block the proposed regulations, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., signed on as a co-sponsor Monday.

Thune's bill had 44 co-sponsors as of this morning.

U. S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. — who Wenesday called on Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to testify during appropriations hearings in the Labor, Health & Human Service and Education Appropriations Subcommittee he chairs — plans to sign on as a sponsor to the companion bill in the House, Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said this morning.

That bill, sponsored March 7 by Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, had 23 co-sponsors as of this morning.

But the Child Labor Coalition, comprising 28 organizations including labor unions, labor rights, educator and child advocacy groups, attacked the bills.

"The Department of Labor's proposed safety rules are rooted in expert research and designed to protect child farmworkers, " said Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League and the co-chair of the CLC. "Agriculture has long been exempt from many child labor and occupational safety protections granted to all other industries. As new farm equipment is developed and our knowledge of pesticides and other risks to children evolve, it only makes sense to update the list of tasks that employers should not be allowed to hire children to do. "

All three of Montana's federal lawmakers have spoken out against the proposal since it first was unveiled.

Provisions of the proposed rules include prohibiting any children younger than 18 from working at a job storing, transporting or marketing of crops, including in grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards and livestock exchanges; and no one younger than 16 can work in any action causing pain to an animal, such as branding, castration or vaccination.

It would prohibit children younger than 18 from using electronic devices, including cellphones, while operating machinery, and would limit the ability of children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment.

The original version of the bill exempted children working on their families farms and ranches, and a revision in February expanded the exemptions from the regulations to include children whose parents are part-owners or operators of farms, or have a substantial interest in a farm partnership or corporation.

Rehberg, Tester, Baucus and other lawmakers said at the time that more needed to be done to protect letting children and youths work on agricultural operations, and all three reiterated that Wednesday.

"Farm and ranch chores build character and work ethic,

they make us who we are as Montanans, " said Baucus, who invited Solis in February to come to Montana to see what it is like when children work on the state's farms and ranches. "No one has the best interest of Montana children in mind more than their own parents, and we can't have bureaucrats in Washington telling Montana families how to raise their kids. I support efforts to protect the health and safety of workers and children, but this proposed rulemaking just plain doesn't make sense. "

"Montana is a world leader in agriculture because our farmers and ranchers learn the values of responsible, safe work at an early age, " said Tester, who farms near Big Sandy. "I will fight any measure that threatens that heritage and our rural way of life. "

Rehberg Wednesday repeated his promise to insert language in his appropriation bill from his subcommittee to block funding for implementation for the proposed regulations.

"Frankly, it's insulting that federal bureaucrats thousands of miles away from a family farm would presume to think it's their job to tell parents to keep kids safe, " said Rehberg, who ranches near Billings. "On family farms around the country, youth safety is a way of life, enforced by parents and communities. What the Department of Labor needs to understand is that a rule that denies formative training under the watchful eye of loved ones actually puts kids at greater risk.

"Putting kids in a bubble may be safe as long as they're in the bubble, but heaven help them if they're not properly trained when they leave the bubble, " he added.

Child Labor Coalition representatives said the proposed regulations would protect children in the industry that has the highest rate of injuries and deaths to children.

"The Department of Labor's proposed safety rules would be a huge leap forward in keeping children safer while they're at work and while they're learning to be farmers, " said Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children's rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Job training for farmworker youth is important, but it shouldn't involve the few tasks that experts find are most likely to kill and maim them. "


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