Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed a bill into law on Tuesday that would roll back child labor protections in the state as Republicans across the country wage a campaign to make it easier for employers to violate child labor laws.
The law eliminates the requirement for children under 16 to show documentation of their age in order to work. Before this, employers seeking to employ a 14- or 15-year-old child had to obtain a permit showing the child’s age.
The Republican-sponsored bill was passed by the state legislature last week. Republicans like Sanders claim that the permit system, which dates back to the early 1900s, is an unnecessary burden on employers and — in Sanders’s words — “obsolete” in modern times.
The bill signing comes just after federal officials and explosive reporting uncovered that illegal child labor is alive and well in the U.S. In February, the Department of Labor issued a $1.5 million fine to Blackstone-owned Packers Sanitation Services for illegally employing over 100 children, some as young as 13, to clean slaughterhouses in eight states, including at least 10 children in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, The New York Times recently uncovered that companies that manufacture products for household-name brands are illegally packing their factories full of immigrant children, in what the publication dubbed “a new economy of exploitation.”
Research has found that child labor laws are far from obsolete — in fact, advocates say that the opposite is true, and that laws need to be strengthened. Violations of child labor laws are on the rise; labor officials said in February that the agency has seen a 69 percent increase in illegal child employment cases since 2018.
In fiscal year 2022, the Labor Department said it found 3,800 children unlawfully employed at 835 companies investigated by the agency — but, with the maximum civil penalty for violations at just over $15,000, the penalties aren’t enough to deter companies from continuing to break the law.
Opponents of the Arkansas bill point out that the law isn’t actually about what Republicans claim — instead, it’s representative of the GOP’s willingness to open the doors to companies exploiting children and the party’s general distaste for regulatory protections.
“This is not red tape, so who is it a burden to?” Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said to the Arkansas Advocate. “It’s a burden to companies who are illegally hiring minors beyond the allowable hours and in conditions that aren’t allowed.”
Child labor laws are in place for a reason. Children are more susceptible to injuries and death at work, and exposure to toxic chemicals can be even more potent in children, whose bodies are still developing.
Regardless, Republicans are forging ahead with laws to expand the child workforce. Republicans in Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin have introduced bills that would roll back protections limiting the hours and times of year that children can work, extending hours into the school year.
In Iowa, Republicans are seeking to expand the types of work that children are able to do, like working in industrial freezers, meat coolers, and industrial laundry, and exempt employers from liability if children are injured or killed on the job. It would also allow Iowa officials to grant exceptions to the types of work children are allowed to do if the work is classified as a work-based learning program, stripping children of worker compensation rights.
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