Sri Lanka: Domestic workers and ID

Hélène Smertnik
Sep 24 · 5 min read

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

In March 2019, Caribou Digital launched our When ID works for women research. Our aim was to understand the relevance of an ID for women and work. Work and income have the ability to provide a sense of economic independence for women. To what extent does ID lead to a wider range of income generating opportunities, or safer work, or the ability to protect and grow income for women?

To explore this, we looked at the segments of domestic workers, factory workers and online workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — two countries with a growing, but not always protected, female workforce. In this blog, we share insights from our Sri Lanka fieldwork on the segment of domestic workers and ID.

ID is largely required but not a barrier to obtaining domestic work

Largely, the female domestic workers we spoke with were asked to show their ID by their employers and were able to show it. One women had lost her ID and was still able to do daily house work, though she suggested that she wouldn’t probably be able to live at the houseowner’s place.

Employer’s demand to see domestic worker’s ID has waxed and waned depending on the political climate of Sri Lanka and one of the principal reasons for the widespread ownership of ID is security. In a country with a history of civil wars and more recently, a terrorist attack in 2019, ID requirements are tightened.

Rukmani, one woman we interviewed, is a 47 year old mother of four, who was previously a tea estate and garment factory worker, and now works in multiple houses as domestic help in Colombo.

“When I started work, they asked if I have an ID. I showed them all my documents. Still now, I always keep my ID with me. For work and also to move around in case the authorities check.” Rukmani, 40

Rukmani instinctively took her ID out when we started the discussion. We explained that the purpose of the research was not to verify her documents but rather to talk about her experiences of using it for work. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

Like Rukmani’s story, Tilekeshwari’s video interview illustrates how ID is essential for her and the role it has played in enabling her to work.

Getting passed the main barrier to obtaining work given ID’s prevalence, women have the ability to decide what work to do

Without ID, the women we spoke with would not have been able to get work, even as domestic workers. Tilekeshwari, who started work at 14, had to prove her identity by getting a village chairman certificate and as soon as she could apply for her ID, she did with her father’s help.

What the Sri Lanka context brought to light is that ID is not only the first critical step to access domestic work but also provides room for women to consider choices in terms of what type of work to choose.

Kalaipryia talking to the researcher. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

As a domestic helper, I can easily take leave in case of an emergency. I just need to inform the house owner, and take leave when my children get sick. This flexibility is not available in other jobs.” Kalaipriya, 34

Many of the domestic workers we spoke with, included Kalaipriya and Tilekeshwari, defined domestic work as a “better work” option for them, compared to factory work, because it gave them flexibility. This flexibility is seen as a priority, especially once married and after becoming a mother, even though there is no contract or benefits.

Having ID doesn’t necessarily lead to formal financial inclusion

The domestic workers we spoke with worked largely without a contract and are paid in cash. On the whole, they felt they did not have enough to save to justify the logistical hassle of opening a formal bank account. If they did have enough savings, they often used the husband’s account.

Group discussion with domestic workers in the outskirts of Colombo. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“We are able to save something from what our husbands earn because we are also contributing. We pay the house rent with what my husband earns and with my earnings we pay for medicines, children’s school requirements, extras for the house like that. My husband brings his daily earnings and gives me. I collect that and after buying whatever we need and if there is anything remaining we save it.” Chamini, domestic worker

Tilekeshwari, in her interview, similarly talks of how they have a bank account, but do not have enough to save, and that instead of formal bank loans, she has pawned her jewelry or asked her neighbour for money in case of emergency.

Takeaways and thoughts

Overall, Sri Lanka is an interesting example of where ID works for women, although we acknowledge that there are demographics, such as tea estate workers — who we discuss further in our upcoming report — who do find it harder to access ID. The widespread access to ID, including for more vulnerable groups, is linked to successful ID systems in place, leveraging a good education system (ID commonly applied for while at school) and gender parity.

In this context, the research highlights that:

  • ID is critical to obtaining work but not an obstacle. Unlike in our Bangladesh fieldwork, domestic work is not seen as work taken on because there is no other job possible without an ID. On the contrary, in some cases domestic work is seen as more flexible (although we acknowledge there may be self-reporting bias). The relative opportunity for decision-making provides good lessons for other countries where ID may not be so prevalent that women have a choice on the kinds of work they take on.

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Caribou Digital is publishing a series on insights derived from our research* on women, work and ID in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

This is the second of our blogs from Sri Lanka.

Our initial findings blog is here.

Bangladesh findings are here.

*This research is funded by Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, via its support for the Commonwealth Digital ID Initiative. We would like to express our thanks to all our respondents, the DFAT iXc team, DFAT Sri Lanka, Sparkwinn Research, Big Blue Communication and our advisory panel for their support.

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

Hélène Smertnik

Written by

Research consultant at Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

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