DES MOINES — Union workers from across Iowa gathered Monday at the State Capitol to protest proposals making their way through the Legislature loosening state child labor laws.
“We are drawing a line in the sand now,” said Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor. “Our kids are not for sale. We are not — we are not selling our kids out to multinational corporations for profit … and cheap labor. Our kids are not for sale.”
The latter became a rallying chant as the union workers marched to deliver letters to House and Senate Republican leadership outlining their concerns and urging them to kill the bills.
The legislation, among other provisions, would let teens as young as 14 to request a waiver from the directors of the state workforce and education agencies to work as apprentices as part of “work-based learning” programs in jobs formerly off-limits as being hazardous, including manufacturing, mining, construction or processing, among others. And it provides employers immunity from civil liability if a child is injured, becomes ill or dies on a job that is part of a “work-based learning program.”
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Republicans who approved the proposals in subcommittee have said the bills would help businesses find workers in a tight labor market and to help young Iowans become more engaged in work.
Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig and the bill’s manager in the Senate, argued concerns raised about putting children in harm’s way are overblown, and that the measure is aimed at updating an old law with reasonable standards.
“There’s language in there for schools and employers to work together to try and teach some skills and to get children out into places where they can become employable and start looking forward to a career,” Schultz said.
Iowa chapters of employer lobby groups representing small businesses, homebuilders and hotels and restaurants back the proposals.
Democrats and labor unions contend the measures weaken child labor protections and allow corporations already profiting from widespread use of illegal child labor to legalize their exploitation.
They note one of the country’s largest cleaning services for food processing companies was recently fined more than $1.5 million following an investigation by the U.S. Department Labor, which found Packers Sanitation Services Inc. employed more than 100 children as young as 13 years old to clean dangerous meat process equipment, including at 13 meatpacking plants in eight states, including in Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas.
Children were found to be using caustic cleaning chemicals and cleaning “dangerous power-driven equipment, like skull-splitters and razor-sharp bone saws,” according to the Associated Press.
“These proposals fly in the face of common sense as well as decades of research showing that hazardous jobs and excessive work hours can damage teens’ health, development and education,” Wishman said in a statement.
Wishman added the proposed changes also directly contradict federal labor law, which prohibits children under 18 from working in meatpacking plants and bars 14- and 15-year-olds from working past 9 p.m. in the summer and 7 p.m. during the school year.
The proposal also would make legal:
- Allowing youth as young as 14 to work six-hour nightly shifts in industrial laundries or meat freezers during the school year, and longer hours during summer months
- Allowing 15-year-olds to work on assembly production lines or loading/unloading shipments of items up to 50 pounds
- Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol
“Everything in our plant gets moved either by a fork truck, a crane, vacuum or hooks. It’s no place for 14- or 15-year-old kids to be,” said Sandy Conway, a member of United Steelworkers Local 105 who works at Arconic in Riverdale near Davenport.
Conway said she has two 16-year-old granddaughters and two 14-year-old granddaughters, who she said “have no business in that environment.”
Each of the bills, Senate File 167 and House Study Bill 134, has passed out of subcommittee, but neither has been approved by the chambers’ respective committees.
Ryan Drew with Operating Engineers Local 150 and Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer and business agent with Teamsters Local 238 in Cedar Rapids, called on legislators to get to work on solving problems facing working families and their children, including low wages, wage theft, unsafe work, lack of access to affordable child care and underfunded public schools.
“Don’t relieve employers from liability when kids get hurt, strengthen work comp laws that you’ve weakened because our kids are not for sale,” Case said. “Don’t cut school funding and send our kids to work in the factory — that’s the exact opposite of the direction our state should be moving in.”