States Across America Are Trying to Weaken Child Labor Protections

It’s not just Arkansas: in states across the country, Republicans are making a concerted push to roll back laws protecting children from working dangerous jobs like construction and meatpacking.

View of carrying-in boys, reaching in to extract glass from the kilns to be carried to the mold working area, at the Indiana Glass Works factory, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1908. (Lewis W. Hine / Buyenlarge via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, a bill to roll back child labor protections was signed by Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Spun as a commonsensical instance of red-tape reduction, the innocuously titled “Youth Hiring Act of 2023” in fact eliminates existing protections enforced by the state’s Department of Labor for over a century and makes it possible for employers to hire children as young as fourteen without obtaining parental consent.

The irony here is difficult to miss. Across the country, GOP lawmakers are currently advancing a raft of dystopian laws targeting vulnerable groups, most often under the guise of protecting children and “parental rights.” Arkansas is far from the only place where Republicans apparently see no contradiction between these stated objectives and the rolling back of child labor protections. As a recent analysis from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reveals, the much-publicized Youth Hiring Act of 2023 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the weakening of child labor standards. Over the past two years, some ten states have either introduced or passed legislation in this vein, with eight of such bills appearing in the past few months alone.

One, recently introduced in Minnesota by Republican state senator Rich Draheim, would allow sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to work on construction sites. Another, proposed in Iowa, aims to lift existing restrictions around hazardous work so that children as young as fourteen can work in some dangerous industrial facilities and would grant employers immunity from civil liability in cases of workplace-related injury, illness, or death. Another, in Nebraska, would make it legal for young workers to be paid less than the minimum wage.

Depressingly, the EPI offers plenty of similar examples from other states. Though sometimes differing at the level of detail, the general idea is to make it easier for employers to demand more hours from younger workers in an expanded number of workplaces at a lower cost — usually by skirting or exploiting loopholes in federal labor law. This employer-friendly ethos is not simply the product of Dickensian-minded GOP lawmakers but part of a concerted effort by corporate interests seeking to cut corners and maximize profits. Unsurprisingly, most of the legislation tracked by the EPI has the explicit backing of various business lobbies.

As Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast of the EPI explain:

Across the country, the primary proponents of these laws are business groups and their state affiliates, particularly the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Restaurant Association. Hotel, lodging, and tourism associations, grocery industry associations, home builders, and Americans for Prosperity — a billionaire-funded right-wing dark money group — have also supported bills in various states.

Amid this offensive, industry groups have rather unconvincingly claimed that such changes are necessary because of declining youth labor force participation rates. Though the share of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds had indeed decreased over the past two decades, the EPI’s analysis finds that the main reason is that increased numbers are going to school.

A much more convincing explanation for the push’s motivation is America’s current labor market. With unemployment now at its lowest level in over fifty years, some industries evidently favor the creation of a new labor pool among younger workers over the messy business of trying to attract prospective employees with higher wages. As is typically the case, corporate lobbyists and their political surrogates are hoping to frame the horror of badly paid teenagers working in meatpacking facilities or scaling girders on dangerous construction sites as an extension of opportunity and agency.

Some employers, in fact, aren’t even bothering with spin or legislative activism and are instead taking much the shorter route of employing children illegally — the EPI’s analysis also finding a chilling surge in the number of outright child labor violations over the past year.

If nothing else, it’s a reminder that businesses in a capitalist economy are perpetually in search of new ways to lower their costs and increase their margins, even if the means to that end are right out of Oliver Twist.