Conservatives abolishing child labor laws? Where are the family values?
By Mike Killalea, NSD president
Progressives and conservatives don’t agree on much, but we agree that little kids shouldn’t work in dangerous jobs. Right?
Apparently not. So far this year, eight bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in six Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) and in Arkansas, where a bill repealing restrictions on work for 14- and 15-year-olds has now been signed into law. One bill introduced in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.1 Ten states have introduced, considered, or passed legislation rolling back protections for young workers in just the past two years.
There’s been plenty of cheating anyway. The Biden Administration recently announced plans to accelerate enforcement against companies illegally working migrant youth in hazardous jobs. The effort will be led by a new interagency task force organized to fight exploitation of child labor.
While federal agencies are ramping up enforcement of child labor protections in response to increasing violations, industry groups are working to roll back child labor protections via state legislation.
This is a well-established tactic from the reactionary playbook. If you can’t drag the country back to the 1800s via Washington, head for those friendly red states that have gerrymandered themselves into permanent red majority.
Iowa’s proposed bill is unbelievably callous. Enthusiastically supported by a bevy of industry lobbying groups, the bill would lift restrictions on hazardous work; lowers age for alcohol service; extends work hours; grants employer immunity from civil liability for workplace injuries, illness, death. The bill even removes rules preventing parents from lying about a child’s age to land a job that violates child labor law.
Encouraging parental lying is apparently a conservative priority in Iowa.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Gov Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law a bill that repeals restrictions on work for 14- and 15-year-olds. A spokesperson for Sanders called parental permission requirements for children to work an “arbitrary burden.”
There are plenty more, and I encourage you to check out the links below. (I shamelessly and generously helped myself to their fine prose in crafting this blog.)
Decades of research document that excessive work hours can jeopardize teens’ health and development, and that youth are developmentally and biologically more vulnerable to workplace injuries and long-term harms from chemical exposures and other workplace hazards than older adults. They also jeopardize the futures of young people, as young adults who drop out of school to work have the lowest earnings and highest unemployment rates of all workers.
Yet legal protections for children are being called socialism, and a federal power grab from the states.
These arguments stem from the same tired and discredited ideological framework that prevailed in the 1920s: an antigovernment ideology pushed by business leaders who resent government regulation broadly and want the “freedom” to pollute the atmosphere, operate dangerous workplaces and rob immigrant children of their chance to succeed in school and beyond.
Restaurant, hotel, and tourism lobbyists; chambers of commerce; the National Federation of Independent Business; grocery industry associations; and home builders are behind the push to put little kids on the payroll. So is the Americans for Prosperity—a billionaire-funded right-wing dark money group.
Do you think the employers are concerned with child welfare? I don’t, and I bet you don’t either.
Vote for candidates who will help children — and damn the special interests.