Cutting Poor Families Off from Income to Protect Them?

People often make sacrifices in the future for the sake of the present. Or rather, they choose present and what they hope will be future benefits even though the choice also mandates or risks future problems. I’ve been told repeatedly that there could be problems in my future if I don’t get eight hours of sleep, but I think I will have worse immediate problems if I shrink my work day. So I make do with six or seven.

But children can often make bad choices because they don’t really grasp the concept of the future. That is why it is not right to make contractual agreements with children unless the parents of the children are supervising and agreeing with the decision.

According to Human Rights Watch, this is not enough when it comes to tobacco farming. They claim to have found child laborers dealing with symptoms, after handling tobacco, that seem to be the results of nicotine poisoning.


From the sparse mobile home he shares with his mother in Snow Hill, N.C., Eddie describes feeling lightheaded and queasy after a 12-hour day in the tobacco fields.

“In the mornings, tobacco is wet because of the dew and, like, the rows are narrow and the tobacco is really big. You just feel like you’re suffocating or can’t breathe really well,” he says. “You just want to stop and not do it no more.”

Eddie, who’s in the eighth grade, is hired by contractors who provide labor to growers in the area. His family came here from Honduras when he was 7. By the time he was 12, Eddie says, he had started working in the fields alongside his mother to help make ends meet.

In theory, I can see a case being made that this constitutes a form of harm on a child that should not be permitted, even if parents don’t have a problem with it. But it is not clear to me that children need to be banned from tobacco fields.

First of all, it is not obvious if only children are getting the poisoning. If adults are able to avoid it, then doesn’t this mean that the children aren’t handling the tobacco correctly? In that case, couldn’t the problem be solved with better protective gear and/or training rather than cutting these children off from income?

Also, are twelve-hour workdays so bad for less than three months out of the years?

Notably, Eddie doesn’t want his work to be criminalized. He wants to have the job in the summer.

In North Carolina, 15-year-old Eddie Ramirez is hopeful the newfound attention to his summer job will bring changes like safety gear and places to use the restroom.

So while I can see a reason for interfering with this kind of child labor, on the grounds of protecting a child from harm, I’m not at all convinced yet that this would be the right way to go. Being unemployed and poor during the summer without work could have its own risks.