Before I set off for work, I go through my usual morning routine. I have a cup of coffee, glance at the newspaper headlines and walk my 11-year-old daughter to the bus stop at the bottom of our street. She hops on the bus, and I head to the office – a standard morning for families across the globe.

But today, on World Day Against Child Labor, millions of 11-year-olds were not able to start their morning on a school bus. Instead, more than 215 million children went to work in factories, fields and homes to earn money and help their families survive, according to the UN’s World Report on Child Labor.   

The overwhelming root cause of child labor is poverty. Worldwide, more than 2 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening across the globe, including in developing countries where more than 20% of the population live in extreme poverty – less than $1.25 a day. Many children work simply to eat, and child labor is much more common in poor countries and in poor households where a routine paycheck – due to chronic poverty or economic shocks like natural disasters or civil uncertainty – cannot be counted on.

Save the Children is the world’s leading organization for children, operating in nearly 120 countries. Our programs with working children are unique. We have worked for and with children for nearly 100 years, and we strive to put the best interests of the child first, always. We believe that the ideal place for every child is in school, where they will be able to build a foundation for a promising future – and child labor deprives them of their childhood and their potential.

Unlike work that can contribute to a child’s development and life skills, such as safe after-school activities to earn extra pocket money or put toward family expenses, child labor can be mentally or physically dangerous. 

In these situations, and with the safety and well-being of the child as our number-one priority, Save the Children works in the short term to make working conditions safer for those kids who must work to survive. And we ensure that they are paid a decent wage, and give them continued access to education. All the while, we’re working toward the long-term goal of eliminating child labor altogether.

To make this possible, we work with three key partners in any situation: the child, the child’s family, and the community:

  • With the child, we provide vocational training to adolescents so they have in-demand skills for their labor market. For younger children, we organize children’s groups to spur discussion and raise awareness about the risks of child labor, while teaching them about their rights. We engage volunteer teachers to support working children’s unique needs.
  • With the family, we work on vocational training and micro-enterprise funding to promote sustainable livelihoods, help them get access to schools and social services, and provide information to parents and caregivers so they can support their children.
  • With the community, we train local employers to promote occupational safety and health, and work with community-based committees to utilize local knowledge and resources to identify and respond to issues around child labor.

But there is another partner in this effort, one that can protect children now and set a precedent for future generations: the private sector.

Whether they are small business owners in the developing world or multinational, multibillion-dollar global organizations, business leaders can take simple steps to ensure that children are not exploited on their watch and to influence the world of child labor.

And what’s good for kids is good for business. Women in developing countries are the biggest emerging market in history, and a company that looks after the needs of children will be seen in a favorable light by this growing (and desirable) consumer base.

Business partners are now taking the lead in addressing child labor issues in the communities where they operate or even source their materials. While The Coca-Cola Company does not typically purchase ingredients directly from farms or plantations, it is a major buyer of sugar and other agricultural commodities – so the business felt compelled to take action. In the framework of engaging the child, the family and the community, The Coca-Cola Company and Save the Children worked together to prevent child labor in Honduran sugar mills. By visiting schools and community organizations and promoting the issue through national and local media, the effort is raising awareness about the risks facing children in dangerous work environments.  

This commitment demonstrates how business can have a meaningful impact in the lives of children and families across the globe. By leading by example and leading by influence, children’s rights can become part of the language of business.

Carolyn Miles, President and CEO, Save the Children

Carolyn Miles, President and CEO, Save the Children

About a year ago at this time, I visited Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and the ninth-largest city in the world. Save the Children has been working in Bangladesh for 30 years. For much of that time, we have sought to improve the lives of working children while working toward ending child labor completely. But still, 7 million Bangladeshi children are working in order to survive – many of them in very tough conditions.

I met one young girl who particularly struck me. Basha, 15, told me about how she had been trained in a Save the Children program to understand her rights as an employee and to get support so she could work and still continue her education. She is currently working in a small electronics assembly plant, making money that supports her education and that of her two siblings, while playing an instrumental role in changing local practices to ensure children are paid fairly and not subject to unsafe conditions.

Life hasn’t been easy for Basha, and she faces hardships and challenges most children should never have to face. But she is able to work safely and keep up with her education, giving her a better chance to fulfill her potential. I hope that Basha’s children and the generations to follow will have greater protections, so that they can spend their days in school until they’re ready to join the working world at an appropriate age and with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.  

At the end of today’s World Day Against Child Labor, my 11-year-old will get off a school bus as millions of other children begin another shift. It’s not right. But we can take action to demand policies that protect children from hazardous work conditions and exploitation while we continue the battle against child labor. Every child deserves the chance for a childhood – and the opportunity to build a better life for themselves. 

Carolyn Miles is president and CEO of Save the Children.