Drugs, bullying, crime, underage sex.

There are plenty of things for parents of young teens in America to worry about.

But exploitation and child labor is not usually one of them.

Usually, when we talk about underage workers, we think of garment factories in China, or farm laborers in Pakistan. But the fact is that children are employed on farms across the United States, and some of them are risking their lives in the process.

Deadly risks for farm workers

A recent series of investigative reports by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity looked at the danger of “walking down the grain,” a practice of sending workers into grain bins to manually shift blockages and keep corn moving.

The reports highlighted the case of Wyatt Whitebread, a 14-year-old who died after being sent into a corn bin at a farm on the edge of Mount Carroll, Ill.

In a heartbreaking interview, a  family friend recounted how Whitebread hated the idea of returning to work:

The mischievous and popular 14-year-old had been excited about his first real job, he told Lisa Jones, the mother of some of his closest friends, as she drove him home from a night out for pizza. But nearly two weeks later he told her he was tired of being sent into massive storage bins clogged with corn. Jones choked back tears as she recalled the conversation. "I wish I never had to see another kernel of corn for the rest of my life," Whitebread told her.
Whitebread, who suffocated after being sucked into quicksand-like corn with two of his fellow workers, was sent into the corn without a safety harness or adequate protection, and with conveyor belts continuing to run beneath the bin, creating a suction effect that contributed to the tragedy.

Regulatory loopholes
But this is far from an isolated incident. NPR reports that eight teens ages 17 and younger were killed at Office of Safety and Health Administration-regulated grain facilities since 1987, and more than 220 teens have died in grain incidents since 1964, if you include farms. (Farms are generally exempt from OSHA regulations.)

It’s this exemption of farms from regulations, including those governing child labor, that has parents and children’s rights advocates particularly worried.

Noting that children working on farms are four times more likely to be killed at work than those working in all other industries, the Department of Labor had been working to lift exemptions and to tighten the rules on teen farm labor. As The Christian Science Monitor reports, however, not every parent was happy about it:

"You can't make a rule to stop every accident," Mosbacher said after his son Jacob hopped off the 40-year-old, 60-horsepower tractor at their farm near the tiny southern Illinois town of Fults. "There's always a risk in life, no matter what you do.”

The false image of agrarian tradition

When the Labor Department dropped its plans for legislation under pressure from the farm lobby, human rights campaigners were outraged. They argued that large commercial farms are hiding behind the smokescreen of family farming to enable child exploitation that would not be tolerated in any other industry. This video, created as part of a Human Rights Watch campaign against child labor on U.S. farms, highlights why activists and parents are so concerned:

A lack of transparency

In theory, many parents may welcome the notion of their kids learning a work ethic, and getting to know the great outdoors. Yet without proper regulation it can be almost impossible to know what your children will be asked to do — as the experience of Wyatt Whitebread’s father so bitterly shows:

“Wyatt's father, Gary, is a large-animal veterinarian and familiar with agriculture. He went down to the Haasbach bins before Wyatt was hired to find out what his son would be doing.

"They were in an empty bin sweeping up corn because a new crop was going to be coming in," Gary Whitebread says, "not in bins full of corn loading them out.”

All this has many parents asking – why should the children of farming communities be any less protected than urban teens working in their local pizza joint?

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