How can the voices of children employed in the worst forms of child labour in Bangladesh influence the development of effective child labour policy?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bath
Department Name: Social and Policy Sciences


According to ILO estimates, 218 million children aged between 5 and 17 are in employment worldwide. The basic minimum age for employment in all sectors in developing countries is 14, rising to 18 for hazardous work. The ILO defines child labour as "mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children," and an impediment to children's education. A further classification, "the worst forms of child labour" includes slavery, trafficking, forced labour, sex work, and involvement in criminal activity such as drug trafficking. In Bangladesh, 1.2 million children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour.

Child labour is understood to be an issue of the South, anti-developmental, a barrier to education which places children in the way of a range of harms. The landscape of child labour is understood as one in which children are failed by their parents, have no agency, and whose circumstances are governed by poverty. Child labour is understood within the framework of children's rights as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) 1989 which confer on children rights to a childhood, primary education, health, fair treatment under the law, and the right to express their opinions on issues affecting their lives.

The policy response to child labour is for its effective elimination, the urgent priority being for the eradication of the worst forms of child labour through multi-sectoral anti-trafficking programmes. Corporate Social Responsibility programmes enforce ethical codes to eliminate child labour from supply chains.

From 2008 to 2012, child labour reduced by 47 million. From 2012 to 2016, it fell by only 16 million. The ILO projects that at that reduction rate, there will be 121 million in child labour in 2025.
Child labour policies developed by international institutions such as the ILO are failing children. Those policies are not grounded in a developed theory of freedom and exploitation. They rely on a universal definition of childhood which limits space for young people to exercise agency and were developed without the participation of children.

This PhD project is a child-centred investigation into child labour. It aims to find out how poor children in urban Bangladesh understand concepts such as coercion, consent, freedom, exploitation and decent work, and what their understandings tell us about hegemonic articulations of the concepts in the operation of international institutions like the ILO. It will fill a number of research gaps and has the potential to impact upon policy. As a child-centred investigation of child labour, it will produce knowledge about how children exert agency in their engagement with labour markets. It will also develop ground-up theory around key concepts structuring children's experience of labour. This, in turn, will challenge resistance to child participation inherent in dominant approaches to child labour and facilitate the production of a children's theory around child labour, which is a novel and potentially impactful contribution to policy making.

The PhD is nested within a much larger, DFID-funded programme that centres on achieving meaningful impact on child labour policy-making, Tackling the Drivers of Child Poverty and Modern Slavery: A child-centred approach, providing clear pathways for the findings to reach key stakeholders. The DfID-funded programme consortium of academic institutions and I/NGOs is led by the Institute of Development Studies. Collaboration with consortium project team members is essential to the delivery of the PhD, as well as offering the enrichment of interdisciplinary work. Data collection for the PhD involves periods of overseas field research in South Asia, collaborating with the core delivery partner facilitating the PAR with children and families in pre-selected slum areas in Dhaka. Difficult language training is required to equip the PhD candidate with skills in Bangla.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2229597 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 06/06/2024 Moyra Hawkes