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Child labor protections are the latest Republican target

Arkansas is leading the charge against laws that protect kids — despite revelations of dangerous child labor nationwide.

Photo of Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, mid-speech, wearing large silver hoop earrings and sunglasses on her head.
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders attends the AutoZone Liberty Bowl football game at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on December 28, 2022, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Justin Ford via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved a bill on Tuesday eliminating a requirement for children under 16 to obtain state documentation in order to work. The new Arkansas law is just one of a number of state bills loosening child labor restrictions, despite evidence that young children are already engaged in dangerous and exploitative labor throughout the country.

State GOP legislators have used the rhetoric of protecting children and giving parents more choice over their children’s lives to justify extreme policies such as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s drag show ban and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s ban on any instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation in elementary schools. Sanders’s spokesperson, Alexa Henning, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “The Governor believes protecting kids is most important, but doing so with arbitrary burdens on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job is burdensome and obsolete.”

The new law, called the Youth Hiring Act, will eliminate the requirement that children aged 14 and 15 seeking a job acquire a document issued by the director of the Division of Labor, which includes the child’s work schedule and a description of their work duties, as well as proof of age and parent or guardian consent.

Sanders signed the bill just weeks after the Department of Labor released the results of an investigation that found 102 children aged 13 to 17 illegally working dangerous jobs like cleaning meat processing equipment. Ten of those children were working at facilities in Arkansas, according to the investigation, and 25 were working in Minnesota, another state considering looser child labor laws.

Many children working in dangerous and illegal jobs are migrants from Central America trying to earn money to send home to their families who are struggling due to the economic downturn precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, a recent New York Times investigation found.

Removing the Arkansas documentation requirement “just seems to create a state of lawlessness,” Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition, told the Washington Post. That’s on top of a labor and immigration system that has failed to protect migrant children from dangerous and exhausting jobs that impact their mental and physical health as well as their ability to attend school.

Republicans have long sought to erode labor protections, often by attacking labor unions and pushing right-to-work legislation that limits their power. The Arkansas law presents a new, troubling frontier in this trend; it erodes protections for some of the most vulnerable people in society under the guise of liberty.

The reality of child labor in the US is devastating

The child labor at the heart of the Labor Department’s investigation and the New York Times story is much more than just a summer gig lifeguarding at a local pool or bagging groceries at the supermarket after school. Those investigations uncovered migrant children working long, overnight shifts in factories cleaning meat butchering equipment with hazardous chemicals, in the construction industry, or packaging food for massive corporations using fast-moving conveyor belts that can rip off a person’s fingers.

Henning, Sanders’s spokesperson, stated that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits children under 18 from doing certain dangerous work — such as manufacturing or construction — still applies to labor practices in Arkansas. The FLSA was enacted in 1938 and limits the hours children can work so they have plenty of time to go to school, do homework, and get enough sleep to stay awake in class.

Relying on the federal system to protect children from exploitative work is a dubious proposition, though the government has pledged to do more to crack down on child labor. The federal system has failed the most vulnerable children, leaving them exposed to dangerous labor practices and exploitation. In Hannah Dreier’s New York Times investigation, children reported working overnight shifts in hazardous conditions which affected their health and prevented them from getting enough rest to attend school. Many children dropped out of school so they could continue supporting their families back home.

The penalties for breaking child labor laws are minimal, especially for large corporations. Packers Sanitation Services Inc., the subject of the Department of Labor investigation which employed 102 children to clean meat-processing tools like “back saws, brisket saws and head splitters,” was ordered to pay a fine of $1.5 million — just over $15,000 for each illegally employed child, which is the maximum penalty allowed by law.

The new Arkansas bill presumes that “businesses [will comply with federal law] just as they are required to do now,” as Henning said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Though the federal government has vowed to crack down on child labor violations, the Labor Department doesn’t currently have the capacity to investigate and punish all reported violations, the Washington Post reports, making states the practical enforcers of labor laws.

Arkansas state Senator Clint Penzo, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Democrat-Gazette that he is working with the state attorney general’s office and state Rep. Rebecca Burkes, who proposed the bill, to strengthen penalties for businesses that violate child labor laws. Rep. Burkes did not respond to Vox’s request for comment by press time.

Michael Lazzeri, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Regional Administrator said in a statement that their investigation found “Packers Sanitation Services’ systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags,” indicating that the risk of fines or breaking federal law wasn’t enough to make the company stop employing children.

Additionally, a multistep supply chain often means that the facilities where children are working aren’t technically their employers. Different companies around the country contracted with Packers to clean their facilities. When the supply chain is this convoluted, it’s easier for companies to have plausible deniability about who is working for them.

Other states are poised to follow Arkansas’ lead

After decades of reform trying to make labor safer for everyone, adults and children alike, Arkansas’ new child labor rollbacks seem retrograde, especially given the realities of child labor as exposed by the Labor Department and New York Times investigations.

“Stories of kids dropping out of school, collapsing from exhaustion, and even losing limbs to machinery are what one expects to find in a Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair novel, but not an account of everyday life in 2023, not in the United States of America,” Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-MI) told the House of Representatives in a February 27 speech.

But the push to roll back child labor protections isn’t just limited to Arkansas, and it follows a decades-long Republican effort to roll back labor protections of all kinds, including by enacting right-to-work legislation and eroding the political power of labor unions.

In a tight labor market such as the US is facing now, there are more jobs available than there are workers who want to do those jobs. Employers offering lower-wage, low-skilled jobs in particular have tried tactics like giving signing bonuses and increasing pay to lure workers to jobs they may have abandoned during the Covid-19 pandemic. But that bait hasn’t been enough to fill the gaps, and some corporations refuse to offer the kinds of wages and benefits that would attract adult workers.

“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, told the Washington Post.

States like Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota are now considering looser child labor bills, and Ohio just passed a law allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work till 9:00 pm all year long.

Per the Iowa bill, children as young as 14 would be allowed to work in certain jobs in meatpacking plants. That bill would also protect businesses from responsibility if a child were injured or killed while on the job. The Iowa Department of Labor declined Vox’s request for comment on the bill.

Following the findings of the Labor Department and the New York Times investigation, the federal government has vowed to crack down on child labor violations, particularly in regard to migrant children. The new initiatives laid out by President Joe Biden’s administration include a proposal to target and hold accountable corporations which use child labor in their supply chains — not just the smaller contractors that are responsible for hiring children. Labor Department officials will also open investigations in states found to be child labor hot spots and ask Congress to increase the fines for FLSA violations, the Times reported last month.

But stopping dangerous and exploitative child labor — particularly when it’s enabled by failures in multiple systems — requires more vigilance and more protection for the vulnerable, not less, as Labor Solicitor Seema Nanda told the Washington Post. “No child should be working in dangerous workplaces in this country, full stop.”