Today is World Day Against Child Labor. This year, the worldwide movement against child labor is calling for more social protection for families and children. Poor parents everywhere – farm laborers, wildcat miners, homeworkers sewing garments, stone-crushers, brick-kiln workers, domestic workers and many others may have their children work alongside them because, otherwise, they can’t earn enough to keep their families.

Many children work to earn money to go to school (even though working and going to school affects attendance and achievement). And when poor families, especially with insecure incomes, get hit by sudden shocks to their finances – for example, education costs, any medical costs, or the death or injury of a breadwinner – it can knock them sideways. That’s often the first time a child – even a child in school – begins child labor to replace or fill the gap in an adult’s income. Social protection ensures basic family incomes so children don’t need to work to fill the gap. Social protection changes lives.

Simon Steyne in the field

Since 1919, the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s constituents governments, labor unions and employers’ organizations – have worked together at the International Labor Conference “the parliament of the world of work” to agree international labor standards, including on child labor. The ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor, the world’s largest child labor program, where I work, supports the constituents to do what is needed to put an end to this scourge.

Today also marks the end of the 103rd session of the International Labor Conference and Ed Potter, director of global workplace rights at The Coca-Cola Company, bows out from the ILO Employers’ group after years of distinguished service. I’ve worked with many employers over the past 25 years, often in partnerships to combat child labor. Ed’s passion to eliminate child labor and to promote decent work in freedom for all quickly won my respect and admiration.

So what is and isn’t acceptable work for children? All over the world, youth are clamoring for decent jobs. Young people under 18 but above the general minimum age for work (usually, 16, 15 or 14 and not before compulsory schooling ends) should have access to decent youth employment, full time or alongside their studies. But, today, 168 million children under the age of 18 are in child labor. Essentially, that means the work is damaging to their health or development; it means they are among the 85 million children in hazardous work or the 5.5 million working in conditions of slavery; or that they are in illicit activities or victims of commercial sexual exploitation; or it simply means they are among the 83 million children who are too young to be working at all.

Depending on the age of child and the work involved, it may be fine for children to help out in family businesses in conditions that are not defined as child labor. But most child labor is unpaid work in family farms and businesses. And the world’s most vulnerable people – children have the human right to be protected on family farms too, commercial or not, even if it’s their parents who, knowingly or unknowingly, put them at risk. No child should be sprayed with pesticides, use dangerous tools, get green tobacco sickness, work for long hours in extreme temperatures with or without sanitation or clean water. No child should drive farm machinery, work in mines, or be subject to abuse as a domestic worker.

This isn’t about kids helping with normal family chores. It’s about types of work children should not do – that’s child labor. The international community says, “protect older children so they can work in safety and dignity; don’t let any child perform hazardous work; and don’t let small children work at all”. That’s why, on World Day 2014, the worldwide movement against child labour is calling for social protection for all: education, health care, maternity protection, health and disability insurance, unemployment insurance and pension coverage. When any of those pillars is missing, at the bottom of the pile is a child in or at risk of child labor.

But reasons are not excuses. Governments must make sure every child is protected and enjoys the human right to health and education. Employers must make sure they don’t employ children in conditions of child labor and don’t pay poverty wages that force parents to have their children work too. Labor unions have a key role to play in helping those working families have a voice and to negotiate for better wages and conditions in workplaces in which child labor becomes a thing of the past. We know that can work – look at what the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s productivity agreement achieved in the tomato and cucumber fields of Ohio in the U.S. As the football World Cup begins, we continue to use the campaign symbol of the Red Card to Child Labor – a call on everyone to consider how they can help.

And many children go to school but drop out because work prevents them from keeping up or because the quality of education isn’t good enough to persuade them (and their parents) to stay. We must ensure schools are places children want to be: where they’re safe and can explore the joy of learning. One avenue, with proven success around the world and for which IPEC is campaigning with our partners in the world of music, is to make good music education available to all. It encourages children to enroll in school and to stay in school. Have a look at the Music against Child Labor Initiative webpage: be inspired and join in!

Child labor exists, in poor and rich countries alike, when priority is not given to good law and to social justice. No country has achieved full development and justice for all without ensuring universal education and adequate social protection and without tackling child labor. An estimated 168 million children are in child labor today. That’s 168 million good reasons to carry on the struggle to end child labor once and for all! Many, among them Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Obama and ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, have used the powerful image of the arc of history bending towards freedom. When it comes to the task at hand, there are no excuses. We know what works, and we must intensify our efforts so the arc bends faster and further towards a world free of child labor.


Simon Steyne

Simon Steyne is head of Social Dialogue and Partnerships in the International Labor Organization's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor. He joined IPEC in 2008 after 19 years as an official of the British Trade Union Congress. Simon was a member of the ILO Governing Body, of the ILO Conference Committee on the Application of Standards and of the International Council of the Global March against Child Labor. He contributed to the drafting of ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor and helped establish the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative. Among his responsibilities today, he is an advisor to the boards of the International Cocoa Initiative, the End Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation and the AIM-Progress group of branded goods companies, which includes the Coca Cola Company, and a coordinator of the global Music against Child Labor Initiative.