Francis Wilkinson: Arkansas loosened child labor laws. That’s a travesty

Tribune Content Agency

The Dickensian spirit that animates a vast swath of American conservatism has moved from aspirational to operational in recent years. Anti-abortion laws now force women to carry unviable fetuses and prolong, and publicly endure, the physical and emotional pain of their misfortune. Republican politicians deliberately target the small, often vulnerable, population of trans kids and their parents, the better to make partisan gains out of their ostracism. And in the ultimate homage to reactionary cruelty, a few states are seeking to make it easier for employers to exploit the labor of children.

A recent New York Times investigation found teenagers working hazardous jobs throughout the nation. “They are taking jobs in slaughterhouses, construction sites and commercial bakeries — positions that have long been off-limits to American children for nearly a century,” the Times reported. At least a dozen underage migrant workers have been killed on the job since 2017, the report said.

Last month, regulators fined Packers Sanitation Services Inc., a food-sanitation company hired by slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, for employing at least 102 children ages 13 to 17 in meat-processing facilities in eight states. Astonishingly, $15,138 is the maximum civil penalty allowed for each illegally employed child. (If crime doesn’t pay, it is at the very least a good bargain.)

The violations weren’t accidental, inspectors found; they were “systemic.” They included children using hazardous chemicals to clean “back saws, brisket saws and head splitters” among other industrial meat-processing equipment. At least three minors were injured working for the company.

When Republicans in Arkansas learned that two of the facilities, employing at least 10 children, were located in their state, they immediately convened public hearings with the goal of enacting legislation to ensure that no children in Arkansas would ever again be subject to such dangers.

Imagine a nation in which the previous statement were true. In reality, Arkansas Republicans did no such thing.

In the wake of the Times investigation and Department of Labor charges against Packers Sanitation, however, Arkansas did act. This month the state rescinded a regulation requiring employers to sign a permit before employing a minor under the age of 16.

The permit had consisted of a single page, with the employer section consuming about half. Employers stated the hours and type of work for which the minor would be employed. Then the employer signed the document, providing some measure of accountability in the event the commitments made on paper weren’t honored. From start to finish, the document typically took less than one week to process.

No organized lobby claimed credit for passage of the Youth Hiring Act of 2023. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who established her MAGA cred trafficking Donald Trump’s lies and inventing some of her own, signed it into law.

Child advocates vigorously opposed the legislation, and even some Republicans voted against it. The state Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t support it. Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, described the legislation as “a solution looking for a problem.” Arkansas Business, a state publication, editorialized against it, noting that “requiring children who are 14 or 15 to provide proof of age, permission from a parent or guardian and employer details, including a job description and the signature of an owner or manager of the business, is not overly onerous.”

Republican state Rep. Rebecca Burkes, who sponsored the bill, said it wasn’t backed by any specific business sector. “Rather the idea came from research from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank in Florida,” Arkansas Business reported.

It’s a familiar system. Ideologues and vested interests provide funding to a “think tank,” which hires people to provide public-facing rationales for what the ideologues and business owners wish to achieve. Then friendly legislators cite think tank research to justify the legislation that they enact.

The Foundation for Government Accountability is funded by the right-wing Bradley Foundation, an affiliate of which, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported, had “heavily funded groups promulgating the falsehood that election fraud is widespread in America, particularly in minority communities, and sowing doubt about the legitimacy of Biden’s win.”

In addition to research on “election integrity,” the Foundation for Government Accountability produced a 2022 research paper, whose authors include at least two graduates of faith entrepreneur Pat Robertson’s law school, calling for deregulation of teen labor. The “bottom line,” according to the paper, is that “states should restore decision-making to parents by eliminating youth work permits.”

The permits that Arkansas eliminated had required parents to sign off on their child’s employment. Now that there is no permit, parents have no designated role in the youth employment process.

If the ultimate problem here is a tight labor market, the U.S. could increase legal immigration. But that solution rankles MAGA racial sensibilities. It may also be beside the point. Back in 2009, when national unemployment was around 9%, Maine’s proto-MAGA governor at the time, Paul LePage, was already seeking to lower labor standards for children, even though there wasn’t enough work to go around for adults. In the race to the 19th century, Dickensian factories are a model suitable to all economic conditions.