States Are Loosening Child Labor Laws

The governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has approved the Youth Hiring Act, eliminating the need for children aged 14 and 15 to have state documentation to work. This is one of many state bills that are loosening child labor restrictions despite numerous reports of child labor exploitation in the United States. In particular, migrant children are at risk, as they work in hazardous conditions to send money home to their struggling families.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which prohibits children under 18 from doing certain dangerous work such as manufacturing or construction, still applies to labor practices in Arkansas, according to Henning, Sanders’s spokesperson. However, relying on the federal system to protect children from exploitative work is a dubious proposition, given that the government has failed the most vulnerable children, leaving them exposed to dangerous labor practices and exploitation. In Hannah Dreier’s investigation for The New York Times, 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. For instance, 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. Arkansas’s new child labor rollbacks seem retrograde, especially given the realities of child labor as exposed by the Labor Department and The New York Times investigations.

The push to roll back child labor protections is not limited to Arkansas. 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.

(This post was primarily written with the assistance of ChatGPT v4 as a summary of several news stories, grammar-checked using Grammarly, and edited for clarity and accuracy by an actual human. The featured image was created in Midjourney using the prompt, “’Cinematic still’ + human trafficking + child working in a factory + sad, dark, lonely, tragic + detailed watercolor illustration”)

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