Arkansas Lawmakers Considering Dangerous Changes to State Child Labor Law

We all want Arkansas’s children to lead healthy, safe lives. But a legislative effort to change child labor laws would make it easier for businesses to hire children under 16 without their parents’ permission.

House Bill 1410 would dispense with the state requirement that children under 16 obtain a work permit before taking a job. It’s legal for children younger than 16 to work, but there are extra restrictions on the type of work they can do and the hours they can work. In addition, the state requires the employer of the child to obtain a permit that verifies the child’s age (children younger than 14 cannot be employed), the hours they’re supposed to work in compliance with existing labor laws, and most importantly, that their parents have granted permission and are aware of what’s going on.

Such permits provide an extra layer of protection for children and proof that the companies that hire children at least acknowledge — in writing — that they’re following the law.

In committee hearings, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Burkes, implied that these permits are an unnecessary relic of more than a century ago.

But the truth is that children are being exploited in the workplace every day, right here in Arkansas. Just in the last few weeks, a company that hires people to clean poultry plants paid big fines (not big enough, in our opinion) for hiring Arkansas children in hazardous and illegal conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor’s investigation found that children 13 to 17 years old were working overnight, cleaning dangerous equipment with hazardous chemicals.

The company’s actions were illegal under our current labor laws. They would still be illegal under the proposed bill. But a consequence of HB1410, especially the removal of the requirement that businesses attest to the hours the child is working and the type of work, is that it would be easier for companies to get around those requirements. It would remove the paper trail.

The permits in our existing child labor laws are there in recognition that companies hiring 14- and 15-year-olds need an extra layer of scrutiny.

This isn’t bureaucracy. This is child protection.

As we said when testifying against this bill in committee, our concern is not for the children who have attentive parents, or the 14-year-olds who go to work for the local business whose owners are friends of the family. Our concern is for the children who can fall victim to exploitation of businesses, like the subcontractors who were caught by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child labor violations are not a relic of the early 20th century. The federal Labor Department reported in February that in the last five years, child labor violations have grown 69 percent. The victims of this exploitation are often young immigrants, as the New York Times outlined in a sweeping investigation on February 26th.

Lawmakers want to get rid of these work permits for children. Why? They’re not red tape. They exist to make it harder for people who would take advantage of our most vulnerable for the sake of greed.