Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Conservative group works to relax child-labor laws, citing 'parental rights'; biggest victory has been in Arkansas

Chart by Jacob Bogage, Washington Post, from Department of Labor data
With guidance from a conservative lobbying group, some states are relaxing their child labor laws; the changes may make exploitive practices more common and violators harder to find, report Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl of The Washington Post: "Iowa lawmakers voted last week to roll back certain protections. . . . The state's Senate approved a bill to allow children as young as 14 to work night shifts and 15-year-olds on assembly lines. . . .The measure, which still must pass the Iowa House, is among several the Foundation for Government Accountability is maneuvering through state legislatures. . . . The Florida-based think tank and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, have found remarkable success among Republicans to relax regulations that prevent children from working long hours in dangerous conditions."

"On the surface, the FGA frames its child-worker bills as part of a larger debate surrounding parental rights, including education and child care," Bogage and Paúl write. "It achieved its biggest victory in March, playing a central role in designing a new Arkansas law to eliminate work permits and age verification for workers younger than 16. . . . . Sponsor, state Rep. Rebecca Burkes (R), said in a hearing that the legislation 'came to me from the Foundation [for] Government Accountability.'"

"Since 2016, the FGA's Opportunity Solutions Project has hired 115 lobbyists across the country with a presence in 22 states, according to the nonpartisan political watchdog group Open Secrets," the Post reports. David Campbell, professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Bogage and Paúl, "The reason these rather unpopular policies succeed is because they come in under the radar screen. . . .Typically, these things get passed because they are often introduced in a very quiet way or by groups inching little by little through grass-roots efforts."

Annie B. Smith, director of the University of Arkansas law school's Human Trafficking Clinic, told the Post, "This is likely to make it even harder for the state to enforce our own child-labor laws. . . . Not knowing where young kids are working makes it harder for [state departments] to do proactive investigations and visit workplaces where they know that employment is happening to make sure that kids are safe." The lack of documentation leaves children exposed. "The work permits — more than 2,700 of which were issued by Arkansas officials in 2022, according to state government data — required proof of age, parental permission and an employer's signature," the Post reports. "They left an 'important paper trail' of where children were employed and reminded businesses of the rules, said Laura Kellams, from the nonprofit Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families."

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 partly to "stop companies from using cheap child labor to do dangerous work, a practice that exploded during the Great Depression," Bogage and Paúl report. "The Labor Department has seen a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, officials reported. Between 2018 and 2022, federal regulators opened cases for 4,144 child labor violations covering 15,462 youth workers, according to federal data."

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