Red state Republicans are rolling back child labor laws
Conservatism in a nutshell: instead of improving working conditions, they're exploiting children.
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By Lisa Needham
Republicans have found a new hill to die on: rolling back child labor laws. It’s all part of a larger plan to crush worker protections, and it’s especially repugnant that children are a part of this scheme.
In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders just signed a bill that will allow children as young as 14 to work without getting a work permit from the state. Before this, anyone under 16 had to apply for a work permit with the state’s Division of Labor. Getting rid of that requirement “restore[s] decision-making to parents concerning their children” and “streamline[s] this hiring process for children under 16,” according to the bill’s text.
Applying for the work permit wasn’t exactly onerous on the parents or the state. It’s a one-page form that took a few days to process. However, the requirement meant the state at least was aware of how many children ages 14-15 were working and where they were working, and a parent had to sign the form. Now, all that is gone. Republicans who sponsored the bill basically handwave this away, saying that if an Arkansas business is going to break labor laws, it will do so regardless of a work permit or not. That’s an exceedingly cynical view.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, that’s literally what the head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce said about the bill. It doesn’t appear any other business sector was clamoring for the bill’s passage either. Instead, reported Arkansas Business, this law, and similar ones across the country, are the brainchild of a conservative think tank in Florida. The “Foundation for Government Accountability” has a website explaining that teens under 16 are a “critical source of labor” and complaining that “millions of adults would rather stay home than work.”
One would think that a Foundation for Government Accountability would actually be interested in strengthening the government’s accountability to teens, ensuring they’re not placed in exploitative work situations, but of course, this isn’t about accountability. It’s about unfettered capitalism, placing the demands of employers well ahead of the safety of workers.
Arkansas isn’t the only state where Republicans want child labor laws relaxed — it’s just the first one where the bill already reached the governor. A similar bill is going through the Iowa legislature right now. Iowa currently has a lengthy list of jobs teenagers aged 14-17 aren’t allowed to do because they are dangerous, but the law proposes that the state create a sort of apprenticeship program so teens could do dangerous jobs such as mining, meatpacking, or ones where they are exposed to radioactive substances. The bill also contains a provision that would limit civil liability for those businesses if a teen worker is hurt or killed on the job. The bill has passed out of committees in both chambers of the state legislature.
Minnesota Republicans are also pushing a child labor bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. However, the state currently has a Democratic trifecta, so it is unlikely to get anywhere. In Ohio, there’s a proposal to allow teens as young as 14 to work until 9 pm on school nights.
If anything, lawmakers should be cracking down
The push for these bills comes at an especially odd time given that child labor violations have been increasing since 2015. These violations have been in the news lately thanks to a recent United States Department of Labor investigation that found Packers Sanitation, one of the country’s biggest food safety sanitation companies, employed 102 children ages 13-17 in 13 meatpacking plants across eight states, including three in Minnesota. These teens were using what the Department called “caustic chemicals” to clean dangerous meat processing equipment, including sharp saws.
The maximum fine that can be assessed for a child labor law violation of this kind is $15,138 for each child employee, so Packers ended up paying $1.5 million under the consent decree it signed with the DOL. It isn’t clear how much revenue Packers generates, because it is a private company, but it paid the Blackstone Group, the private equity firm that owns it, $432 million in dividends in 2019 and 2020, so the $1.5 million probably doesn’t sting too much or act as much of a deterrent.
While these bills are focused on child labor, they’re part of a larger push by Republicans to roll back worker protections generally. Prior to the New Deal, workers had little to no protections. Instead, they had the meaningless “freedom to contract” — to take whatever dangerous, low-paid job they could find. In a 1905 case, Lochner v. New York, the United States Supreme Court threw out a New York law that barred companies from allowing bakers to work more than 10 hours a day, or 60 hours per week. Lochner, the owner of the bakery, sued. He didn’t want to keep two shifts going at his bakery, instead having workers sleep on site, where they worked anywhere from 12 to 22 hours per day.
The Supreme Court sided with Lochner, waxing rhapsodic about the “right of an individual to be free in his person and in his power to contract in relation to his own labor.” Of course, that’s not how things work. Employees, particularly in high-risk jobs or ones that require difficult physical labor, are not situated the same as their employer. What this really meant was that companies could exploit their workers in any way they wanted, and the only real “freedom” employees had was to work in dangerous conditions or try to find another job.
This view held sway for three more decades until the Court decided West Coast Hotel v. Parrish in 1937. There, the Court upheld a Washington state minimum wage law for women and explained that workers don’t just require jobs. They require “the protection of law against the evils which menace the health, safety, morals and welfare of the people.” This became the foundation for modern workplace safety laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which created OSHA and formalized workplace protections.
Republicans want workers to have the right to be exploited
It will not surprise anyone to learn that modern conservatives hate workplace protections and long to return to the Lochner era.
Ten years ago, GOP senator Rand Paul complained about Lochner while filibustering about drone warfare, saying that “someone can't deprive you of determining how long your working hours are without due process” — as if the “right” to be worked to the bone was the only one that mattered. The Trump administration went on a deregulation spree, gutting workplace protections in high-risk jobs like mining and meatpacking. The administration also tried to get rid of a child labor rule that prevented 16- and 17-year-olds working in nursing homes from operating power-driven patient lifts. And the pandemic made clear the current Supreme Court does not care about worker safety, holding that OSHA’s mandate of ensuring “safe and healthful workplace conditions” did not include requiring vaccinations against a deadly disease.
Conservatives pushing these child labor bills say they are necessary because companies are having trouble finding workers in a tight labor market. Rather than making jobs safer or better-paid, they’ve decided to exploit children. Conservatism in a nutshell, really.
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