Working Kids to Death
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Brad Greve said he and other expedition leaders repeatedly told the group of Boy Scouts to watch out for a section of stream where the water picked up speed and swept over rapids into the lake below.
But two of the boys forgot the warnings and let their canoe drift perilously close to the drop-off anyway. Realizing their mistake in the nick of time, they paddled furiously against the stiffening current and made it to the streambank rattled but safe.
That near-accident a few years ago, Greve said, underscores the vulnerability of young teens. And it fuels Greve’s anger at Republicans who want to gut child-labor laws and fill dangerous jobs with still-maturing high-schoolers, even at the risk of working them to death.
Greve vehemently opposes a proposal moving through Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature that would allow 14-year-olds to work in industrial freezers, meatpacking plants and industrial laundry operations. The legislation also would put 15-year-olds to work on certain kinds of assembly lines and allow them to hoist up to 50 pounds.
In some cases, it even would permit young teens to work mining and construction jobs and let them use power-driven meat slicers and food choppers.
Just three years ago, a 16-year-old in Tennessee fell 11 stories to his death while working construction work on a hotel roof. Another 16-year-old lost an arm that same year while cleaning a meat grinder at a Tennessee supermarket.
But these preventable tragedies mean nothing to Iowa legislators bent on helping greedy employers pad their bottom lines at kids’ expense.
“They make impulsive decisions and do things without thinking, just because they’re young. They don’t know what they don’t know,” said Greve, a Davenport, Iowa, resident and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), explaining how the legislation puts youths in harm’s way.
The legislation also would allow employers to force kids into significantly longer work days — until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. during the summer.
These additional ours at work would rob kids of time needed for studying and for the extracurricular activities that help mold them into productive, responsible adults.
For example, Greve, a Scout leader for more than 20 years, helps to lead 50-mile canoe trips on Minnesota’s Boundary Waters that test teens’ mettle while teaching them essential skills. He also assists Scouts with Eagle Projects requiring them to plan, fund and lead community service projects.
“It’s not about teens needing more jobs,” he added of the watered-down child-labor legislation championed by groups like the Iowa Restaurant Association, Iowa Grocery Industry Association and Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. “It’s about businesses wanting cheap labor or more labor than they can currently get because they don’t want to pay reasonable wages or give any benefits.”
COVID-19 prompted millions of Americans to ditch jobs lacking decent working conditions, sick leave and affordable health care. The meatpacking industry, among many others, hemorrhaged workers after deliberately putting them at risk to protect profits during the pandemic.
Now, rather than correct course and provide the quality jobs needed to attract adults, Greve observed, companies want their Republican cronies to “throw them a bone” and widen access to child labor.
Minnesota Republicans want to let 16- and 17-year-olds work construction. GOP legislators in Ohio are pushing legislation to expand teens’ work hours. Last year, labor unions and Democratic officials in Wisconsin beat back a Republican proposal to lengthen work days for teens in that state.
The Iowa legislation is particularly onerous because it would exempt employers from civil liability in the event of a youth’s injury or death on the job — even in cases of employer negligence — if the teen was participating in a school-approved “work-based learning program.”
That will only encourage employers to skimp on training and supervision, even though young workers continually need both, observed Greve, who closely monitored safety conditions at Arconic’s Davenport Works while president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105.
Even worse, efforts to push kids into hazardous workplaces come at a time when employers already flout child-labor laws at record rates, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which has documented alarming spikes each year since 2015.
Employers thumb their noses at the law because they often get away with it for long periods and face only token penalties when caught.
After the 16-year-old fell off the hotel roof, for example, Tennessee officials determined that the company not only illegally put the teen in harm’s way but worked him more hours than allowed and cheated dozens of other workers out of tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay. Adding insult to injury, the company vowed to appeal the $122,000 fine it received for the teen’s death.
Greve knows that eviscerating child-labor laws will disproportionately hurt the poor, migrants, victims of trafficking and other at-risk youths who have little choice but to work when and where they’re told.
The news agency Reuters last year found migrant youths and other children as young as 12 working at Alabama companies supplying the auto industry.
And the New York Times reported over the weekend that the widespread illegal employment of minors from poor and migrant families had reached epidemic proportions, reflecting a “new economy of exploitation.” The Times found that employers subjected thousands of kids in this shadow work force to some of the deadliest jobs in the country, including work in slaughterhouses and sawmills.
Why would you want to weaken the law when you can see companies already taking advantage?” said Greve, noting the importance of electing working pro-worker, pro-child politicians to state and federal office. “The law should be strengthened.”