Deregulating child labor
In February, a federal investigation found that Packers Sanitation Services illegally employed at least 102 children “in hazardous occupations” across 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. The children were found “working overnight shifts” and using “caustic chemicals” to clean “razor-sharp saws,” “head splitters,” and other equipment. At least three children were injured.
Two of the meatpacking plants implicated are in Arkansas. Nevertheless, this month, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed a new law that makes it harder to ensure kids are working in safe conditions.
Previously, children younger than 16 needed an employment certificate to work. The certificate, which was granted by the Arkansas Department of Labor, required the signature of a parent or guardian and proof of age. This process is “one of the only oversight mechanisms for child labor in the state.” Proponents say eliminating these safeguards will “streamline the hiring process for children under 16.”
The “Youth Hiring Act of 2023” gets rid of the certificate, allowing 14- and 15-year olds to work without parental sign-off or age verification.
Childrens' advocates in Arkansas are sounding the alarm. “That paperwork is only [so] that [as] a parent we can ensure that a parent is aware that the child is getting the job and that the hours worked don’t violate child labor laws,” Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Director Laura Kellams told KNWA. “There are special protections in place for young people who join the labor force and that is about ensuring that their education isn’t harmed when they go to work.”
Arkansas' move comes as more children are exploited in the workplace. Since 2015, documented child labor violations have nearly quadrupled across the country. In 2022, reported child labor violations went up by 37% compared to the previous year, according to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.
“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,” spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a statement to the Louisiana Illuminator. Work permits, however, “cost nothing and take only a few days to be approved,” Kellams said. The permits were only “a burden to companies who are illegally hiring minors beyond the allowable hours and in conditions that aren’t allowed.”
The sponsor of the Youth Hiring Act, State Representative Rebecca Burkes (R), described the law in terms of parents rights, saying it would remove the need for parents to get “permission from the government” for their child to work. But the new law actually disempowers parents. Before, a parent would need to sign a child’s employment certificate. Now, kids under 16 can work without any involvement from their parent or legal guardian.
The decades-long campaign to weaken child labor laws
For decades, conservative billionaire Charles Koch and his late brother, David Koch, supported efforts to lift restrictions on child labor: In 1980, David Koch, who was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential pick, ran on a campaign promising the “abolition” of child labor laws.
In 2014, the Cato Institute, a think tank co-founded and funded by the Koch brothers, published “A Case against Child Labor Prohibitions.” In the piece, author Benjamin Powell, argues that child labor is important for “economic growth” in developing countries and, therefore, should not be banned. Working at a sweatshop is “the best option available” to poor children, Powell states.
In 2016, after the Washington Post published a haunting photo essay of child laborers in 1900s America, the Foundation for Economic Education, a Koch-funded nonprofit, responded with a blog post titled “Let the Kids Work.” In the post, author Jeffrey A. Tucker laments how children today are denied “any chance to realize their human value in gainful employment.”
Similarly, the Koch-affiliated Acton Institute also published an essay titled “Bring Back Child Labor,” where it describes work as “a gift our kids can handle.” “Let us not just teach our children to play hard and study well, shuffling them through a long line of hobbies and electives and educational activities,” the author, Joseph Sunde, concludes.
In 2017, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R), who received more than $5.6 million from the Koch brothers during his campaign, signed a bill that eliminated work permits for 16- and 17-year olds. Previously, in 2011, Walker also signed a state budget that abolished restrictions on the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds could work.
In 2019, a Koch-funded expert, Matthew Rousu, advocated for eliminating the minimum wage for teenagers. And last year, the American Prospect reported that the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a group that has received millions from the Koch network, "has teamed up with a bevy of companies to lobby for state-level bills to erode child labor protections, citing the ‘labor shortage’ as justification.”
Since 2020, Koch Industries has contributed $13,000 to the sponsors of The Youth Hiring Act and Governor Sanders.
14-year-olds working in meat coolers
Efforts to roll back child labor laws are underway across the country.
In Iowa, lawmakers are proposing to rewrite the state’s child labor laws to remove “a prohibition against 14- and 15-year-olds working in freezers and meat coolers.” Among other things, the bill also grants the Iowa Workforce Development and Department of Education the authority to waive restrictions on teens 14-17 working in hazardous environments like slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.
It will also shield businesses from civil liability if a child becomes ill, is injured, or killed at work and will strip children of their workers’ compensation rights. Three Koch-funded groups — Americans for Prosperity, the Opportunity Solutions Project, and the NFIB — are lobbying for the bill, according to lobbying filings.
Republicans in Minnesota have introduced a bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in construction. In Ohio, lawmakers reintroduced a bill that would “extend the hours teenagers can work.” In Missouri, lawmakers are weighing a bill that, similar to Arkansas’, would eliminate the requirement for work permits.
The Labor Department's top lawyer, Seema Nanda, recently criticized these efforts in a statement to the Washington Post, describing them as “irresponsible.” Governments should try to “increase accountability and ramp up enforcement” of existing laws, instead of loosening child labor restrictions, Nanda said.