When ID works for women: on domestic workers and ID in Bangladesh

Savita Bailur
Jun 12 · 7 min read

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur


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

Previous blogs:

  1. When ID works for women: What’s the role of identification in helping women get access to work?
  • 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 Bangladesh country office, the field research team BizInsights and Nowshin Noor, Big Blue Communication and our advisory panel for their support.

Why ID? Why women, work and Bangladesh?

“Digital identity” — or as we prefer to call it at Caribou Digital, “identification in a digital age” — is often pursued from the supply side. There are calls to SDG 16.9 for example (free and universal legal identity for all, including birth registration by 2030), or the commitment to serve the 1 billion people in the world without ID. But what do we know about the demand side? And what do we know of vulnerable groups in particular, such as women?

In March 2019, Caribou Digital launched our When ID works for women research. Our aim, embedded in the broader Commonwealth Identity Initiative together with GSMA and the World Bank, 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, garment 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 thoughts from our Bangladesh fieldwork on the segment of domestic workers and ID. We find that although employers do not always ask for ID (referrals are more important), domestic workers would prefer to have an ID, but see the barriers to obtaining one too high.

Shilpi, a 30 year old domestic worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Female domestic workers and protection

It’s estimated that around 90% of the 10.5 million domestic workforce in Bangladesh is female, with a high prevalence of (girl) child labour. Amongst the country’s workforce, domestic workers are considered to be the most disadvantaged, with poor living conditions, lack of formal education and absence of contracts or labour rights at work. Average wages are around BDT 1,000 (below US $12) per month, with 10–12 hours working days. BRAC estimates that most domestic workers in Dhaka are from rural areas and particuarly prone to exploitation and discrimination, as they are new to the city.

Although a Bangladesh domestic worker’s welfare policy was passed in 2015, establishing a minimum work age of 14 and several rights, there’s still no law which enforces this policy. On Labour Day, 1 May 2019, domestic workers marched in Dhaka calling on the government to pass a law protecting their rights. The sector remains non-formal, and our research explores the role of ID within this.

Workers would feel more secure if they had IDs

In our sample, we found around 50% of domestic workers had a form of ID, like a national ID, a birth certificate, or a village chairman’s certificate, and 50% had no ID at all. All those we spoke to felt an ID would provide some sense of security. “Companies that ask for ID are more trustworthy and safe. For instance, if I have an accident, with my ID my employer can know my address and contact my relatives to let them know” said Amana, 30, a domestic worker. Nazma, 35, who recently obtained a national ID, felt: “The practice of physically abusing domestic workers has been very common. Now if any such incident happens, I can go directly to the police station and file a complaint as I have my own NID [National ID].

Tariqa, 27, who now works as a domestic worker through an online platform recounted a case where an ID could have played a significant role in security. “In my previous job I didn’t need an ID but I saw the negative repercussions. I worked in a family where another maid stole 50,000 taka [almost USD $600]. As a result I was held captive to pay back for that money. If the maid or I had an ID, the family could have traced her and I would have been safe. Now I feel that having an ID, as needed for this online platform I work with, makes the conditions more secure, for both me and the employer.” Although the exact circumstances were likely more complex, Tariqa’s incentive to obtain an ID stems from the perceived association of ID with security.

There’s a belief that having an ID could lead to “better” jobs

Many expressed a sense of being trapped in a domestic work position with no security because they did not have ID and/or confidence and skills for other jobs. There was an aspirational aspect of having an ID for those without one. They suggested that if they had an ID they might be able to get a “better” job (with a higher salary, benefits, rights and protection). Rokiya, 25, who had just obtained her ID, said: “I believe that, in the near future, I will be able to have contract papers using this national ID. This will be very useful. Even if I want to work in factories I can go at any time as I have NID.” However, others did note that the ID was insufficient to move out of the domestic sector and both education and experience were also needed. “I tried to get a better job, I applied to become a salesperson in a shopping mall. I didn’t get the job, though I had an ID. I will need to get some experience but I will continue to apply.”

Focus group of domestic workers on the outskirts of Dhaka. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

However, as the sector operates more on referrals than IDs, there are limited incentives to get an ID

All interviewees emphasized referrals as more important than IDs in order to access work — through their own networks, through security guards and just word of mouth through employers’s friends. Not all employers asked for IDs, and even when they did, these could range from a birth certificate to a national ID. In fact, no one mentioned a case where an employer denied a job because they did not have an ID. Afsana, 29, said: “In our workplaces, we are not required to show our National ID cards. We have connections and communicate with security guards of residential buildings. They recommend us if any house needs someone for household work.”

Interviewing Halima, a domestic worker at her employer’s house. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

Barriers to obtaining IDs remain disproportionately high for this group

The main obstacle mentioned by those without IDs was the difficulty in taking leave from work to apply for one. The barriers are disproportionately high in terms of time and skills needed to apply for one, as compared to someone who may be wealthier. The logistics of applying are complex. Applications are only done on specific dates and during the working hours at government offices. In addition to this, many workers preferred to go back to their village — either they believed it would be easier to get their pension in the village in future, or in case they need help from their local network. This means they need more than a day off work, save for travel costs, and justify both, which makes the chance of obtaining an ID even slimmer. For example, Shilpi (in the video above) told us she couldn’t justify getting an ID. She would need 10 days off to do it, and with children in Dhaka and no support, it’s just not feasible.

Without an ID, it’s harder for women to be financially included

Without an ID or apparent need for one, women are more likely to remain in a cash-based system, where they are paid in cash (their preference because of immediate expenses). Here we heard stories of relying on husbands’ accounts and/ or non-formal and potentially insecure saving groups (where in some cases the coordinator had absconded with their money). As the head of Awaj Foundation, a grassroot labour rights NGO, said: “Women who work give their money to their husbands for emotional reasons. We teach them to separate the emotion from their financial independence.” While having an ID doesn’t immediately lead to financial inclusion, with cultural change, it may help women become more financially independent.

Takeaways and thoughts

Our initial thoughts from this exploratory research are:

  • ID is not a requirement for this group to access work. Yet, interviewees voiced concerns that without an ID, they might be more at risk (notably, they could be at risk even with an ID, but at least they have some level of protection).

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

Savita Bailur

Written by

Research Director at Caribou Digital. Visiting Fellow LSE and Cornell Tech; Adjunct Associate Prof at Columbia University http://www.savitabailur.com

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies