April 15, 2023

Todd Dorman: Child labor push in Iowa forgets our history

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The national push for child labor is both mystifying and terrifying. Writing for The Gazette, Todd Dorman looks at Iowa’s child labor push and the history it ignores.

Iowa is facing a labor shortage. So let’s send in the kids.

At least that appears to be the impetus behind bills in the Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate rolling back child labor restrictions. The bills have yet to pass either chamber under the Golden Dome of Wisdom, now redder than ever, but remain very much alive.

Both bills would allow employers to hire kids ages 14-17 for “work -based learning” programs for potentially hazardous jobs, such as manufacturing or construction, currently prohibited by law for teenage workers. All they’d need is a waiver granted by the Iowa Department of Workforce Development or the Department of Education.

Who thinks this is a good idea? Well…

Why make these changes? Look no further than the list of groups supporting the Senate bill. It includes Fareway Stores, the Homebuilders Association of Iowa, the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association, Iowa Travel Industry Partners, the Iowa Restaurant Association, Americans for Prosperity, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Opportunities Solutions Project, a Florida-based group that pushed for limited unemployment benefits and now wants to make it harder to get food assistance.

Dorman does some homework and looks at how Iowa did away with child labor in the first place.

In 1874, Iowa enacted a law that allowed no boys under age 10 and no girl of any age to work in a mine. The age limit for boys was raised to age 12 in 1880. Progress!

Several bills floated in the 1880s to raise age limits for working in mines, factories and workshops failed to gain legislative approval. After all, as Hayes notes, Iowa was an overwhelmingly agricultural state, so the measures seemed unnecessary.

But that changed by the turn of the century as Iowa became more industrial and took on “the complexities of an advanced society,” Hayes wrote.

In 1900, 24,564 boys between the ages of 10 and 15 were “gainfully employed” in Iowa, along with 4,846 girls, according to the U.S. Census. That represented 15.5 percent of the male population in that age group and 3.4 percent of girls.

In 1902 lawmakers passed the Factory Act, directing that no boys under age 16 and no girls under age 18 would be permitted to clean factory machinery while still in motion. No one under 16 would be allowed to operate “dangerous machinery” of any kind. The act also required school attendance for 14-17-year-olds for 12 consecutive weeks. But because the bill did not designate a school start date, the requirement was “widely evaded,” Hayes wrote.

In 1903, State Labor Commissioner Edward D. Brigham warned, “at the present rate of increase Iowa will have in 1910 at least four thousand children in factories; and those enumerated at the preceding census will probably by that time have become paupers and invalid, surely illiterates, to say nothing of the per cent that will be crippled and maimed.”

In 1904, the state required 16 consecutive weeks of school, starting as early as the first week after Sept. 1 and no later than the first Monday in December. It required schools to hire truancy officers, but that didn’t happen in many rural districts where parents refused to send their kids to school.

Mandatory school attendance doesn’t co-exist very easily with hiring children for full time labor, and Iowa’s attempts to create such laws was regularly met by business complaints of “this would ruin us.” Of course, if your business model involves exploiting children as a labor force, perhaps you deserve to be ruined. 

Now, Republicans in 2023 want to somehow transform hazardous work into education, taught by employers who are shielded from legal liability if something goes tragically wrong. Maybe videos of legislative debates on these bills should be shot in sepia tone. Perhaps when the bill passes a street urchin with a stack of newspapers can yell “Extra! Extra!” Too much?

Read the full op-ed here. 

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