Last week the Iowa Senate became the latest legislative body to endorse Republicans' now-nationwide project to roll back child labor protections. The Senate bill, passed in the predawn hours, must now be approved by the state House, and it's a doozy.
The new would-be law "allows 14-year-olds to work six-hour night shifts, allows 15-year-olds to work in plants on assembly lines moving items up to 50 pounds, and allows 16 and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol," reported Iowa's Who13.
The Des Moines Register gives the more detailed version. The Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Workforce Development agency would have the power to create "exceptions" allowing 14- to 17-year-old children to work in industries in which child labor is currently banned; all that is necessary is that the job be designated part of a supervised "approved training program."
In practice, that means factory jobs, farm jobs, jobs requiring heavy lifting or other roles that ban child labor due to dangers inherent in the job will be open to 14 year olds and up, so long as somebody involved can call it job "training." 14- to 15-year-olds will be able to work up to 6 hours a day, until 9pm during the school year, with 16- to 17-year-olds being subject to no hourly caps.
Never let it be said that Republicans didn't compromise, though; the passed version of the bill allows children injured in the workplace to seek benefits under Iowa workers' compensation laws. It also clarifies that while 16- and 17-year-olds can now serve alcohol at restaurants, with written permission from a parent, they're still not allowed to work in bars or strip clubs.
Also, the bill was revised so that rather than 14-year-olds being allowed to get a special driver's permit for going to and from their factory jobs, a committee will only study the possibility of making that happen.
If you're driving on an Iowa highway, just know that the Republican Party's new utopia envisions you sharing the road with 14-year-olds heading back at 9:00pm from their six hour shift of heavy labor before propping themselves up to do their nightly homework. Safe driving, everybody!
The motivation for these new rules is largely self-evident. The labor markets are very tight right now, much too tight for employers' preferences, and a peculiar side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that American workers began to abandon the worst-paying, highest-risk jobs most of all. Since raising wages is seen as only a scant step away from Satanism, the only available solution is to expand the pool of workers.
If young adults don't want to fend off drunken advances while waiting tables at Applebee's, the obvious solution is to get 14-year-olds to do it while calling it "job training." You can pay child workers much less than adult workers, which depresses wages industry-wide, and child workers may not have the same ability to object to unsafe or toxic working conditions as their adult counterparts.
The dangers aren't theoretical, either. U.S. farms alone see 27,000 child injuries and 100 child deaths per year even with child labor restrictions.
The Washington Post followed up on the Iowa Senate's passage of the bill with a look at the nationwide conservative push to weaken child labor laws. It will surprise exactly nobody to learn that these laws are being crafted pushed by a conservative think tank devoted to scaling back social programs while promoting, well, child labor.
The "Foundation for Government Accountability" is the hash-named cutout between legislatures and conservative donors who really, really need pubescent teens working in their meatpacking or automotive plants, and the Post reports that much of its success comes from pushing the bills quietly, under the radar of news organizations and the general public. Many of the laws Republicans are passing in states like Arkansas, Missouri, and elsewhere turn out to be quite unpopular with the public! Rather than not pass the unpopular bills, however, Republicans and their lobbyist groups are simply being more careful to pass the bills before the public can weigh in.
There are two particular points in the Post story that stand out. The first is that loosening of child labor laws is quite definitely going to impact workplace safety; the new Arkansas law eliminating the need for work permits for children younger than 16 makes it much harder for state officials to oversee child safety. "Not knowing where young kids are working makes it harder for [state departments] to do proactive investigations and visit workplaces where they know that employment is happening to make sure that kids are safe," notes University of Arkansas School of Law’s Human Trafficking Clinic Director Annie B. Smith.
It doesn't matter, then, if "penalties" for abusing child laborers are boosted, as sheepish Arkansas legislators attempted after widespread public outrage at their bill. Arkansas Republicans have made it much, much harder to find those violations to begin with.
The other point noted both in the Post and in the Des Moines Register's writeup of Iowa's new bill is a superficial, almost sneering talking point of "parental rights." That's the talking point that's been chosen to make the grossly unpopular sentiment of "let's push 14 year olds back into factory jobs, neatly scrubbing a near century of child labor laws" into something that conservative lawmakers can better argue for.
But really? Parental rights? The argument for weakening child labor laws is that it should be a parent's right to force their child into taking a restaurant, farm, or industrial job? That's the conservative talking point these hacks are selling?
It is! The Register even quotes Gov. Kim Reynolds waxing on about her own experience "babysitting" and "waiting tables" as a child:
"That’s good experience. You know, it teaches the kids a lot and if they have the time to do it and they want to earn some additional money I don’t think we should discourage that. [...] Ultimately, parents and kids will decide if they want to work or not."
There's a world of difference between taking babysitting jobs as a 14-year-old and working with heavy machinery in an industrial plant. There's not a lot of "good" things that waiting tables will teach anybody, except to have a healthy loathing for all of humanity. Perhaps little Kim's first experience with wage theft was a learning experience. Maybe the teens are supposed to learn how to speak drunken Boomer.
But the notion that it is between "parents and kids" to decide? That's ... not the noble talking point the pro-child-labor crowd wants it to be. Historically child labor restrictions have been put in place not necessarily to foil young go-getters who really, really want to work in a meatpacking plant before their 15th birthday, but to prevent 14-year-olds from being forced into meatpacking plants at that age.
Sometimes forced takes the form of human trafficking. And sometimes, historically, it's parents doing the forcing for the sake of extra income.
Weakening child labor restrictions with an explicit notion that the state doesn't need to step in because a child's parents have the "right" to assign their child a potentially dangerous job if a parent wants to—that's tossing out a large chunk of the impetus for child labor laws to begin with.
Children coming from abusive households may have very little say, when accepting job "training" that comes with six hour evening shifts or proximity to dangerous equipment. That is the point of restricting child labor to certain hours and certain industries.
The "parental rights" crowd is always very big on the "right" of parents to keep unsecured guns, or the "right" of parents to push Timmy into farm work, or the "right" of parents to keep their teenager from hearing that LGBTQ children exist. But they don't have a word to say about the "right" of children to not be gunned down in their schools, or the "right" of children to not be exploited as cheap, not necessarily willing labor, or the "right" to be LGBTQ without having the full wrath of the conservative state coming down on their heads.
"Parental rights" is rapidly becoming an identifying feature of "groomers." If someone's talking about parental rights above child rights, they are sketchy.
Speaking of sketchy, there's one other bit of Iowa news that drives home how sketchy Iowa Republican lawmakers are being when they sneer about parental rights and the supposed desires of their state's children. On Monday, Iowa students are planning a noon protest in the Iowa Capitol Rotunda.
The protest is a condemnation of Iowa Republican efforts to weaken state gun laws in the wake of recent mass shootings.
What do the children of Iowa want? They want lawmakers to protect them from being murdered in their schools, that's what they want. But you won't hear any conservative think tank or whining family-"values" Republican taking up that cause, in between efforts to weaken labor rules so that the state's children can work 6-hour factory shifts.
Markos and Kerry are joined by Aaron Rupar today to discuss what he is seeing in the right-wing media landscape. Rupar is an independent journalist whose Public Notice Substack is a must-read for those who want to know how truly outrageous the conservative movement is. We are addicted to his Twitter account, with its never-ending stream of Republican lunacy all captured on video.