The governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on Tuesday signed a bill that significantly rolls back protections against child labor, eliminating state requirements to verify that children are at least 16 before they receive a job.
A spokesperson for Sanders, who before becoming governor was White House press secretary under Donald Trump, told the Washington Post state law had been “burdensome and obsolete”.
The new law weakens official oversight of child labor practices across the state.
The bill’s sponsor, Rebecca Burkes, told KNWA the previous regulation was “one small burden on businesses, and also steps in front of parents’ decision-making process about whether their child under 16 years of age can get a job”.
Passage of the Youth Hiring Act of 2023 represents the latest attempt in mostly Republican-led states to loosen child labor laws, despite federal officials seeking to crack down on offenses.
In Ohio, lawmakers are considering a bill that would let 14- and 15-year-old children work year-round until 9pm each day. The bill has bipartisan support and includes a resolution that would ask the federal government to change its child labor laws.
In Iowa, legislative proposals would allow children at least 15 years old to sell alcohol and children at least 14 years old to work specific jobs in meatpacking plants. The Iowa bill would also protect companies from liability if a child got sick or injured or died while at work.
Lawmakers in Minnesota, which is led by a Democratic governor, Tim Walz, have filed a bill that would permit children aged 16 and 17 to work construction jobs.
Reports by the New York Times have exposed the hiring of migrant children to work dangerous jobs at factories and elsewhere, flouting federal law.
Describing a “widespread exploitation of migrant children”, the Times noted that a recent surge in unaccompanied minors across the southern border has driven many into brutal work across the US, forcing some to balance school and work, whether processing milk for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or making socks for clothing stores.
A proposed class action lawsuit against Ben & Jerry’s accuses the company of defying its own claims that its ice cream is “ethically sourced”, pointing to the use of migrant children in at least one manufacturing supplier.
In response, the company has said it is “opposed to child labor of any kind whatsoever” and “has an established track record standing for justice and equity for all”.
Ben & Jerry’s did not immediately respond to a Guardian request for comment.
Federal regulators have clamped down on companies that have used children as labor.
Recently, labor department investigators found that Packer Sanitation Services, “one of the largest food safety sanitation services in the United States”, hired more than 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 to work in “in hazardous occupations and had them working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states”.
Duties included working with caustic materials that caused chemical burns.
In December, the company agreed to “comply with [federal] child labor provisions in all of its operations nationwide, and to take significant steps to ensure future compliance with the law, including employing an outside compliance specialist”, according to a labor department press release.
In February, the company paid $1.5m in civil penalties.
“These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place,” said Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator for the labor department wage and hour division.
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