Today there are an estimated 218 million children who work, including 152 million who are engaged in harmful work – work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and interferes with their education. Economic exploitation and hazardous work are key violations of children’s rights and Save the Children has worked for decades to protect children from these situations and child labour. To address the issue of children and work we use a holistic, child-centred approach that focuses on child protection, economic strengthening, health and education and to create opportunities for girls and boys to become healthy, educated, and empowered citizens.

Harmful work makes it difficult for a child to attend school, or limits their attendance, including those employed in largely unseen domestic work. Many children engaged in harmful work experience its worst forms – including slavery, forced and bonded work, child trafficking, illicit activities, and involvement in armed conflict and sexual exploitation (including online). Boys and girls are affected differently by child labour. Estimates show that more boys are involved in harmful work than girls, especially in the manual work sector and are often involved in the types of work that present physical hazards. More girls often work in informal and hidden occupations such as domestic work and in the services sector. They are also pulled out of school earlier than boys, and are more likely to face sexual exploitation and slavery.

Save the Children recognises that many children and youth are working across the globe.  Work is viewed in its broader sense, as all economic activities undertaken by children and youth.  It includes all kinds of productive or domestic work, paid or unpaid, in their own family’s home or external to the home, in rural and urban contexts.

Save the Children advocates for protection from harmful and exploitative work for children and youth, while also acknowledging the role of children and youth as economic actors, who can secure benefits from being economically active through dignified work.

In defining harmful work, Save the Children applies key principles articulated in international standards, including Article 32a of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ILO Conventions 182[1] and other international standards aimed at protecting children from exploitation. Within the broad category of harmful work, there are different degrees and types of harm, ranging from physical, psychological and emotional harm, to harm to health, development and education.

Dignified work is work that respects the rights of children. This requires that it is decent and safe work; it exists concomitantly with other rights (eg education, by allowing time for schooling); it enlarges upon learning by imparting knowledge and technical skills but also social, cultural, political and life skills (eg resilience, self-esteem), and instills a positive mindset and responsibility towards society.

The topic of children and work is thus complex. By situating children and work on a spectrum, with harmful and worst forms of labour on one end, and positive and beneficial work on the other, depending on the conditions, work can have both harmful and positive effects on a child’s well-being, growth and development.  Three broad categories of work that require different responses to protect children’s rights, are mapped below on two axes, reflecting the levels of both harm and benefits faced by children in a particular situation[OL4] .

Save the Children’s focus on children and work needs to ensure that we work to reduce harm, while at the same time ensure that we can enhance benefits, through education and livelihoods, so that children can fully exercise their rights and develop to their full potential into healthy, educated and empowered citizens.

What we do? To support working boys and girls, Save the Children implements an integrated, multi-thematic approach which addresses the child’s holistic experience:

  • Child Protection as reduction of harm
  • Education and Child Poverty – as the means to enhance benefits
  • Child Rights Governance as it relates to child-friendly policies and child participation (including child-led movements) as well as the Child Rights and Business Principles, and to

UNCRC Article 32 outlines the right to be protected from economic exploitation and from hazardous and harmful forms of work.
ILO Convention 182 advocates for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour.