Inside the Conservative Campaign to Relax Child Labor Laws

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Now, an extraordinary development here in the labor laws of the United States. But not for the average worker, for children. The Foundation for Government Accountability of a Florida-based conservative think tank has been convincing Republicans to allow kids as young as 14 to work longer hours and in arguably more dangerous conditions. And a number of states like Iowa and Arkansas are getting on board. In his recent article, “Washington Post” reporter, Jacob Bogage, highlights how campaigners are cloaking these rollbacks as parental rights. And he joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss why they appear willing to put children at risk.


HARI SREENIVASAN, CORRESPONDENT: Christian, thanks. Jacob Bogage, thanks so much for joining us. Your recent piece in “The Washington Post” was titled “The conservative campaign to the rewrite child labor laws. And we are going to unpack that in this conversation. But give us an overview of what you found during your investigations?

JACOB BOGAGE, BUSINESS REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: So, when we looked into this issue, this was a piece that started months ago when we saw some bills popping up in the state legislators, rolling back child labor laws and they were eerily similar, a bill that’s become law in Arkansas is a carbon copy of a bill that’s moving through Missouri that is similar to a bill moving through Georgia that has similar elements to something in Ohio, to Iowa, and we wanted to get a sense of kind of what the origin was behind all of these things and why are bills relaxing child labor laws coming back right now. And so, we started looking into that and what we found is that only origin of a lot of legislation comes from a think tank and lobbying group in Florida called the Foundation for Government Accountability that has been active in Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa, even to the extent of sending lawmakers sample bill text, here is a bill, please introduce it. And those went through almost zero vetting process.

SREENIVASAN: So, for people who might not be familiar, what is now the state at play in Arkansas or Iowa? What’s kind of at stake here?

BOGAGE: Sure. So, let’s talk about Arkansas, because that bill has become law. Before this law, if a child, you know, wanted to get a job in Arkansas, they needed to get their age verified by the state. They needed to get some sort of verification. That’s gone now, and that’s really important because the way child labor laws in this country are enforced is a collaboration between federal and state officials. The federal investigator from the Department of Labor or the Occupational Health and Safety Administration wants to come down to the state to do a child labor investigation, and their first stop is going to be the State Employment Office, and they’re going to say, hey, give me all of your work permits for, you know, the children who have jobs in this state. And I’m going to check that paper trail and then, we can go to employers and make sure that kids are working in safe environments, not doing jobs they’re not supposed to do, working the proper hours they’re allowed to work. That paper trail is gone now. And so, we’re seeing that rollback in a lot of states. The same bill in Missouri and Iowa, it goes a little bit further, it rolls back prohibitions on jobs that children were previously not allowed to work, in meatpacking plants, unloading heavy objects from vehicles, in giant freezers. So, this is the kind of regulatory rollback we are looking at in a lot of the states and that conforms with the foundation for government accountability’s longer-term goals, which are, if you can build or shake up the status quo in the regulatory schemes in a lot of states that gives conservatives national policy openings to try to deconstruct other regulations.

SREENIVASAN: So, tell me a little bit about the think tank here, The Foundation for Government Accountability.

BOGAGE: This is a group that founded by a gentleman named Tarren Bragdon who was a state legislator in Maine. And he moved to Florida in around — you know, in the early 2010s, and started this group because that was kind of the high-water mark of the conservative rallying cry around organizing a state level. And that is what he wanted to focus on. And he started with $50,000 in seed funding. Three years in, he was up to $4 million in revenue. He is going to get about $12 million in revenue this year. They have a separate lobbying arm, The Opportunity Solutions Project. In the past handful of years, they have 115 lobbyists in 22 states. I mean, this is not a secret. These guys are all over the place and they are very successful. They file amicus (ph) groups in front of the Supreme Court, they sued the Justice Department in the freedom of information lawsuit recently and won. You know, they are on Fox News all the time. I mean, this is a successful group. They practice what we call the Ikea model of policy making, which is what we are seeing here. You know, when you get Ikea and you go, oh, that looks really neat. Then you go down to the warehouse and you pull the box out and it has cute little how to guide on how to put everything together with an Allen wrench, that’s basically what FGA does. Here is a bill about child labor, and we’ll give you how to guide and the advocacy and research support so that you can pass it with an Allen wrench.

SREENIVASAN: Did they speak to you?

BOGAGE: The group itself did not. We made repeated attempts to reach out, and they very kindly provided a statement and directed us to some other resources, including an op-ed written for Fox but wouldn’t grant us an interview. One of their lobbyists in Missouri, James Harris, did speak to me. And when I approached him after that conversation and said, you know, we’ve obtained some records via Open Records Laws that show that the Opportunity Solutions Project and FGA draft and revise this legislation, that was then introduced. He chose not to comment further.

SREENIVASAN: When I was a kid, I had a paper route. I worked in a video store. These — are there exceptions for the type of work that, you know, the legislation is asking for? A summer job working in an ice cream parlor, or is this just kind of a blanket law now that can go all the way up to a meatpacking plant?

BOGAGE: I want to answer your first question about exceptions first. And when we talk about child labor laws in this country, there is really one big exemption, and that’s for agricultural work. I think, Hari, what’s really important is that we focus on the effect that these laws are going to have on specific types of kids, they’re not going to affect somebody who had a middle-class upbringing like I did, who bus tables in a restaurant over the weekend or scooped ice scream over the summers or even worked at the camp as a camp counselor. You know, we’re talking about families who are in economic distress already, who lean on their children to help pay the bills and are in work environments that are not what we would consider, you know, traditional jobs for kids. You know, these are kids who are in meatpacking plants. These are kids who are working, you know, nearly full-time hours in fast food places, who are on assembly lines, who are doing not agricultural work but mainly landscaping work and long hours and that can be dangerous as well. So, when we talk about who is most affected by laws like this, it’s not the kid in the suburbs who is picking up a job so he can take a date to the movies or, you know, a kid that has money to buy Starbucks with their friends.


BOGAGE: We’re talking about kids who are already vulnerable.

SREENIVASAN: You mentioned that some of these pieces of legislation even make it possible for a child to work night shifts?

BOGAGE: That’s right. Yes. in Iowa this would allow a 14-year-old to work a six-hour night shift, would allow a 15-year-old on assembly lines where they previously weren’t able to. I think a huge part of these bills and something that, I think, our reporting needs to keep diving into is the conflict between state law and federal law. Federal law governs a bare minimum for workplace safety requirements for kids. These states and the state laws, in a lot of cases, directly conflict with that and allow children into jobs that the federal government would not necessarily allow them to do. Allows employers to pay a subminimum wage, in some cases, where federal law has a shorter window open that’s allowed. It expands the amount of hours kids can work in these jobs. And so, that is another — I think Arkansas is a great example, I think Iowa is a great example of that, with two governors, Ken Reynolds in Iowa, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, of course, in Arkansas, who have made part of their policy portfolios to draw distinctions between the regulations and laws in their states and the protections enshrined by the federal government. This is another example of that.

SREENIVASAN: When we think of child labor laws, and I’m going back into my sort of middle school history here, I remember reading Upton Sinclair —


SREENIVASAN: –and I remember reading “The Jungle,” right? And there were these horrible accidents and that’s what we got these protections for, that Children wouldn’t have to work in factories, and that was what, 1930s? And here we are, almost 100 years later and you’re saying that there’s a concerted effort to enable children to work in factories. And I understand that factories are safer today than they were 100 years ago. I’m not saying that they’re the same, but it just seems like a giant step in the opposite direction for sure.

BOGAGE: Well, let’s paint a large economic picture here in which we can kind of identify child labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which among other things, codifies bear minimum protections for child labor is passed a 1938. The reason for it is because during in the immediate aftermath of The Great Depression, employers need to cut costs, they do not want to work with unionized work forces. And so, who doesn’t unionize? Children. Who can you pay less? Children. Who doesn’t complain? Children. Who won’t question authority if they have to do a dangerous job that maybe an adult would identify as dangerous? Children. And so, that was driven, that legislation was driven in a reaction to corporate America seeing opportunities to cut cost through their workforce, if their workforce was significantly younger. What are we seeing today? We’re seeing a historically low unemployment, historic inflammation, thought that was starting to cool a little bit. We’re seeing another environment where business across the country need to cut costs.

SREENIVASAN: Besides the economic reality of a tight labor force, what else is playing into this movement? I mean, is there kind of any residual effect from the pandemic?

BOGAGE: Yes, absolutely. That’s a great question and I think we see that directly in the Foundation for Government Accountability, this think tank and lobbying group that we wrote about, that’s pushing a lot of legislation directly ties government regulation around the public health emergency and the backlash, the conservative backlash to those regulations to wanting to rollback other regulations, especially around children. I think you can place this in the same universe, and not necessarily from FGA’s perspective, but from the perspective of state legislators who in hearing speak out about this, to other activists who speak out about this. You can place this in the same universe as bans on books and library funding and whether children can be around folks who dress in drag. You know, this is all part of that same universe. You know, school openings and school closures during the pandemic, raise conscious curricula in primary school and even in secondary schools, this is all part of that same ecosystem of arguments that I think is in direct response to the government regulation that we know now likely saved untold number of lives during the pandemic.

SREENIVASAN: So, Jacob, how are these pieces of legislation kind of marketed or wrapped (ph)? Because when you mention, you know, I could call it book bans and somebody would call it parental rights, right?

BOGAGE: Yes. Entirely packaged as parental rights down from the FGA’s white papers that say, parents — this is a parent’s rights issue to the way state legislators talk about it. The talking points around this are the government should not be in the middle of the decisions about whether your child is allowed to take a job, what job that is and how long they can work. I think it important to point out that that is a disingenuous argument and that’s not a matter of interpretation, that’s looking at the bills that are passed. In Missouri, the bill that the FGA submitted to the bill sponsor, who is the chair of the Education and Workforce Committee in the Missouri Senate, did not include language that required parental permission for a child to take a job. That bill went in front of a hearing, you know, in front of a hearing in the committee. Lawmakers talked about it and heard testimony and they said, you know what’s missing here? A parental right provision. So, they added the section. Arkansas totally stripped it out. And then, added an optional provision. Iowa, same thing. The idea that these were originally intended to be parent’s rights issues is disingenuous.

SREENIVASAN: What are kind of regulatory muscle is in terms of maybe the Department of Labor having an inspector who can go out and look at a plan and say, look, you clearly have children here. I don’t know what their I.D. says, but this is a 12-year-old not an 18-year-old.

BOGAGE: The Department of Labor is severely outgunned here. Between state labor inspectors and federal labor inspectors, they’re about 1,800 of them across the country. There are tens of millions of businesses across the country. It would take about a decade to inspect every single business across this country for all sorts of labor violations, not just child labor violations, which are extremely difficult to police because you’re dealing with children who don’t necessarily know what their rights are, who maybe don’t realize they’re being exploited. And many of them, even so, even in those circumstances want the job because they need the wages. So, the Labor Department and the regulatory framework is just severely outgunned and under resourced. How often that incidents is happening? Too often. Between 2018 and 2022, the Department of Labor has reported a 69 percent increase in child labor violations. There were something like 3,800 children employed in violation of federal child labor law in 2022. That is almost certainly an undercount.

SREENIVASAN: What’s been the response as this piece of legislation work their way through state legislatures? Is there an effort? I guess is there a concerted effort trying to oppose this?

BOGAGE: There is. It’s — not to cast dispersion, but it’s not very robust. And I say that because look at the states where this legislation is making considerable in roads (ph). It is Iowa, which Republicans hold the super majority in both houses of the legislature plus the governor’s mansion. It is Arkansas, same thing. It is Missouri, same think. Those are — you know, the FGA in their annual report lists, what they call their super states, which are states where they see the biggest opportunity to make policy in roads, those have consistently been states with Republican super majorities. And so, that is where their efforts have been. And though there is resistance to these bills, it’s nowhere near the scale that has been able to stop them in the legislative process. We should, note there’s only been one that’s been signed into law right now. We have eyes, you know, we’ll continue reporting on the other. Hari, you know this and I’m sure your viewers know this, that the success of some of these bills is not necessarily getting signed into law. We are getting past the first year or even a second year they’re introduced. It’s moving overturn (ph) window on these issues and FGA has clearly been very successful in doing that

SREENIVASAN: Jacob Bogage from the “The Washington Post,” thanks you so much.

BOGAGE: Thanks for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Emma Tucker, editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal, calls for the release of reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is currently detained in Russia. Yusra Ghannouchi discusses the arrest of her father Rached Ghannouchi, one of Tunisia’s most prominent opposition voices. Reporter Jacob Bogage analyzes an extraordinary development in American labor laws.