Arkansas governor signs bill rolling back child labor protections

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By Sydney Kashiwagi, CNN

(CNN) -- Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill into law this week that rolls back a number of child labor protections across the state, including a measure that had required employers to obtain work certificates for children under the age of 16.

"The Governor believes protecting kids is most important, but this permit was an arbitrary burden on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job," Sanders' spokesperson Alexa Henning said in a statement. "All child labor laws that actually protect children still apply and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now."

Previously, minors under the age of 16 needed to verify their age and get the written consent of a parent or guardian before a work certificate could be issued by the state's Division of Labor. But H.B. 1410, known as the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, which passed the Arkansas state legislature earlier this month, no longer requires youth under the age of 16 to have that work certificate as a condition of their employment.

The bill's passage comes after the Biden administration announced last month plans to crackdown on labor exploitation of migrant children across the country, the New York Times reported, following an investigation conducted by the publication.

Proponents of the legislation argued that removing the certificate would eliminate a tedious step that stood in the way of minors getting a job quickly in the state. They also said that the bill would restore decision-making to parents about their children and streamline the hiring process for minors.

But opponents of the legislation have argued that the work certificate served as a form of protection for vulnerable youth, especially immigrant youth, who may not always have a parent or guardian to sign off for them to work and who could be exploited without that certificate.

"When we think about kids working who are 14, we think about who this might protect, it's not the 14-year-old who's working at the ice cream parlor in your hometown, whose parents have given them permission to work. We're worried about the children who are at risk of being exploited and who are being exploited today," Laura Kellams, the northwest Arkansas director of the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a group that advocates for children's rights in the state, said earlier this month during a committee hearing on the bill.

Sanders' signing of the bill comes after a major US food sanitation company that operated facilities in eight states, including Arkansas, recently paid a $1.5 million civil penalty for employing minors in hazardous conditions.

Packers Sanitation Services illegally employed at least 102 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in jobs that required them to use toxic chemicals and clean razor-sharp saws.

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