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Iowa Republicans Pass Bill to Allow 14-Year-Olds to Work in Meat Coolers

“This session will go down in history as one of the most divisive and cruel ever seen in Iowa.”

Children climb a gate to get a better view of cattle judging at the Iowa State Fair on August 20, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Iowa state legislature has passed a Republican proposal to allow children as young as 14 to work in meat coolers and roll back a number of other child labor protections as conservatives across the country work to enroll more children into the workforce.

The bill, S.F. 542, was passed by the state Senate on Wednesday, largely along party lines. It is now in the hands of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has pledged to sign the bill into law.

In addition to allowing children as young as 14 to work in industrial laundry and meat coolers, the bill would expand the amount of hours that 14- and 15-year-olds can work during the school year from four to six hours a day, and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work the same hours as adults.

The bill also creates a committee to explore the idea of allowing a special permit for children as young as 14 to drive themselves to work, lowering the age a child is allowed to drive by themselves from 16.

Labor advocates and Democrats have reacted to the bill with horror, saying that it will hamper children’s educational development while potentially putting children’s lives at risk in dangerous physical occupations.

S.F. 542 is “the most anti-child, anti-family bill that I’ve seen” in the child labor realm, Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow for Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, told The Washington Post. “This law is an ideological solution when there is no problem.”

The Twitter account for the Iowa Senate Democrats said that, between the child labor bill, various hateful LGBTQ bills, and Republicans’ move to spend millions in state funds to kick families off food stamps, “This session will go down in history as one of the most divisive and cruel ever seen in Iowa.”

Reynolds has called child labor laws “unnecessary restrictions” and has said that the bill will allow children to “save money for college” in the state with a $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

The bill’s passage would allow for more children to be exploited in the workplace in a time when child labor violations are on the rise across the country. According to Department of Labor data, the number of child labor violations in fiscal year 2022 was nearly triple the amount of violations in fiscal year 2015.

Republicans, seeking to attack the labor movement and erode labor standards, seem to view child labor as an opportunity, despite international recognition that child labor is dangerous and bad for the health of societies at large.

The GOP’s renewed focus on expanding child labor is part of a larger, coordinated effort by conservative lobbyist groups with corporate and Koch family ties to push more children into the workforce. The Foundation for Government Accountability was a major backer of the Iowa bill, and has helped write similar bills in Missouri and Arkansas.

Labor leaders have warned that bills to expand child labor laws are spreading across the country. “Even if this isn’t happening in your state, it is coming to your state soon. I promise you,” Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO President Charlie Wishman told The Real News earlier this year.

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