Iowa bill aims to expand child labor practices

On Jan. 30, Iowa State Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig), introduced Senate File 167. The bill seeks to rollback long established protections governing child labor. This piece of legislation is yet another link in a chain of recent attacks on children and worker’s rights occurring across the country.

At the time of writing, SF 167 is making its way through the legislative process which is difficult to predict in Iowa. As of March 1, the bill has survived the first legislative funnel deadline and has advanced with amendment. Defending the bill Schultz promised, “We’re going to end up with a generation of skilled leaders because of these efforts.” Senate Democratic Minority Leader Zach Wahls counters, “My hope is that this bill does not advance … and then we can get back to focusing kids on actually having rewarding, enriching childhoods and that their employment opportunities are age-appropriate and are safe.”

SF167 includes provisions to allow 14- to 17-year-olds to work in previously prohibited jobs so long as they are part of an approved training program. Given Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ very cozy relationship with the business sector, skepticism about how rigorous the approval process is seems entirely warranted. 

These “training programs” would allow minors to work in, “slaughterhouses, meatpacking or rendering plants; mining; operating power-driven metal forming, punching or shearing machines; operating band or circular saws, guillotine shears or paper balers; or being involved in roofing operations or demolition work.” The law also now allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work in freezers and meat coolers.

Another provision of the bill “exempts businesses from civil liability if a student is sickened, injured or killed due to the company’s negligence.” It continues, “A business also would be free of civil liability if a student is hurt because of the teen’s negligence on the job — or is injured traveling to or from work. A company could face fines of up to $10,000 for violations under the bill, but the state’s labor commissioner could reduce or waive the penalty.”

Beyond this example in Iowa, labor violations and attempts to further exploit workers are taking place across numerous sectors all over the United States. As Liberation News reported on Aug. 22, 2022, Hyundai Motor Co. was exposed exploiting children as young as 12 to manufacture auto parts in Alabama. There were also recent reports of systemic abuse of children performing sanitation services in meatpacking plants in Minnesota and Nebraska. These experiences in Alabama, Minnesota and Nebraska make it clear that children’s safety, much less their welfare, are not the foremost priority, profit is.

This issue was the focus of a recent Socialist Program podcast: “Bosses Want More Child Labor,” where Brian Becker and Professor Richard Wolff shared the history of the campaign to end child labor in the United States. They share why capitalists are rolling back protections for children hard fought and won over decades early last century. 

The last few years saw major changes in the labor market, according to Wolff. Older workers and women left the workforce in large numbers. Years of demonizing the immigrant community has, in Wolff’s words, “hounded them out” of the country, significantly changing the workforce composition. Preferring not to address the labor shortage by offering wages and conditions that would increase the adult workforce, some employers are turning their attention to exploiting children.

Most of the children exploited in Alabama, Minnesota and Nebraska were Latino from migrant families. Instead of efforts to protect these children, in Iowa we find the GOP has introduced legislation that generalizes the exploitation of all children. 

Taking into account Governor Reynolds’ track record on the pandemic, public education and gun violence, if SF167 gets to her desk, Iowa’s children may have much to fear. Her mishandling of the pandemic cost thousands of Iowans their lives and earned her the nickname, “Killer Kim.” Having already undermined public education with the successful passage of a school voucher bill, Reynolds continues to lead the attack on Iowa’s transgender youth. Allowing corporations to dangerously exploit minors is cut from the same cloth. Serving up Iowa’s children as the answer to the state’s labor shortage is no stretch for her. Efforts to confound Reynold’s ambitions in Iowa may well be essential to protect not only Iowa’s children, but children across the country.

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