When ID works for women: on garment factory workers and ID in Bangladesh

Savita Bailur
Jun 20 · 8 min read

Savita Bailur and Hélène Smertnik

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 fourth blog. Previous blogs:

  1. When ID works for women: What’s the role of identification in helping women get access to work?
  2. Initial findings from Bangladesh
  3. On domestic workers and ID in Bangladesh

*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.

“After Rana Plaza [a factory collapse killing 1,134 workers and injuring thousands more] and the Tasreen Fashion Factory [fire killing at least 117 workers], we have become much more conscious about things like ID. So many of our friends who died couldn’t be identified in those accidents and compensation weren’t given to their families. ID is so important for this.”

Asma, 31, garment factory worker.

Hear more from Asma and Moushimi’s stories here.

We at Caribou Digital have been researching the issue of identification in a digital age for five years now. Most recently, we launched When ID works for women. 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 set out to research the segments of domestic workers, garment factory workers and online workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We shared our thoughts on domestic workers here and how ID is not a prerequisite in that sector, leaving workers with less of an incentive to get one.

In this blog, we discuss our research with garment factory workers and their experiences with ID, from interviews and focus groups with 35 workers, including 10 men, in the factory zones of Gazipur and Mohammadpur on the outskirts of Dhaka, as well as with civil societies and trade unions. We find that while ID is more of a requirement in “compliant”, often unionized factories, there are still loopholes. In addition, having an ID doesn’t necessarily lead to digital wage payments (protecting income).

Women and garment factories in Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi garment industry generates around 80% of the country’s total export revenue. 3.5 million workers in 4,825 garment factories produce goods for export to the global market for brands including H&M, Adidas and Walmart. Following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, European brands committed to an Accord on Fire and Building Safety and American brands to the Alliance. Both included policies on safety, security, paid leave and other benefits, anti-child labour and harassment. Factories which signed these are called “compliant factories”.

A “compliant” garment factory, with good lighting and ventilation. Photo credit: A. Kaiser

The majority (85%) of Bangladesh’s garment factory workers are women. Most are paid between US$24 and US$36 per month, and conditions are often reported to range from poor to dangerous. Workers are under pressure to produce increasing larger quantities of garments in shorter amounts of time at the lowest possible price in a precarious work environment. In December 2018, following protests, garment worker salary was raised by 51%, but respondents in our research mentioned it also resulted in increased pressure at work.

Having an ID means access to “better” or “formal” work in the context of factory work

Garment factory workers we spoke to felt an ID would enable them (with education and experience) to work in a compliant factory with stricter rules. Here they could be better protected, and potentially be able to join a union. Sumaiya, 25, noted:

“We don’t have a national ID so our salary is very low and we can’t apply to work at a better factory”.

Asma (in the video above), talked of how having an ID allows her to work in a compliant factory and benefit from better pay. Her ID also allows her to join a union and learn about the rights she could claim at work. Another benefit of having an ID is that in case anything happens to her while at work or on her way to work, a family member can be nominated for her benefits.

Moushumi has an ID with which she entered a compliant factory. There she received a work ID which she uses to walk around the work premises and when going to work, in case the police ask her where she is going. Photo credit: H. Smertnik
A smaller garment factory in Dhaka. Women can train here before applying for larger factories. Some said their training was used instead of an ID, when they didn’t have any. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

However, ID standards are still being set

Respondents in our research voiced concerns that ID requirements are supposed to protect workers in factories but there are no clear and consistent rules. There are differences between compliant factories that most often request an ID (and more specifically the National ID rather than a birth certificate) and non-compliant factories that may not request an ID or will accept less reliable documents such as a birth certificate or a village chairman’s certificate. As Kajol, 28, explained

“Some garment factories don’t employ a person without an ID card, even if they have experience. Others don’t bother checking the ID if they need workers. In some factories, if you have a national ID card, you still have to bring the village chairman’s certificate.”

Even if in theory an ID enables workers to access better work, many of the 35 respondents we spoke with hadn’t received a contract. One worker mentioned feeling at risk of dismissal for trivial issues even after working for ten years. Yet, there is a strong sense of hope that ID brings:

“On the papers we sign [with my ID], it says that the worker is on trial for a period of 3 to 6 months during which she can be fired immediately but after six months there will be a longer notice and some paid compensation if fired. I don’t keep those papers but I trust them.”

Factory workers at a trade union centre to discuss the closing of their factory without getting paid the last 2 months. Photo credit: N. Noor

This leads to workarounds practised by both employers and employees

Rabeya, 31, shared that even in compliant factories where ID is supposedly essential for a job, those without ID would slip through. She reported that in her factory, management would ensure any worker without ID be on leave during inspections:

“Buyers from different countries used to come and visit the factories before making any deal. Then they used to talk with the workers, ask about different facilities at the factory level. But interestingly, the workers who don’t have national ID card used to take leave on that day or even took another section where the buyers were not going to visit.”

Employees, too, spoke of workarounds to not having an ID, such as faking birth certificates to enter the industry below 18, and using a sister-in-law’s birth certificate.

Workarounds have consequences for workers

Those who enter compliant factories through a backdoor are significantly less likely to obtain benefits at work. We discuss this more in our report, but one small example was:

“My colleague didn’t have her ID to provide the managers to input into the computer system and allow for leave. They said to her that they couldn’t do anything about it. They didn’t want to get in trouble by giving her leave without registering it in the system. That is the downside of compliant factories.”

ID enables financial inclusion but paying women digitally may cause dependencies

Responses from our sample suggested that ID can enable access to financial inclusion (formal savings structures).

The Better than Cash Alliance estimates that garment factories paying workers digitally are five times more likely to provide good social and labour practices. However, it also states that only 25% of garment factory workers are paid digitally in Bangladesh compared to 95% in India. Though those numbers need to be unpacked, all our female respondents preferred being paid in cash. They either didn’t want to spend time depositing and withdrawing money from a bank or didn’t feel comfortable with mobile banking. Only one of our respondents (a male) was paid into his mobile money account.

One important point is that if factories insist on paying women digitally, this may cause more problems as women tend to use husbands’ banking or mobile money accounts (we discuss this more in our blog on online workers). In an experiment on digital wage payments in Bangladeshi factories, Breza et al (2017) find workers do adopt bank account and mobile money methods easily, but lack of ID is a major barrier. Also, the authors don’t differentiate between male and female workers, so we don’t know the impact on women as compared to men. One of the reasons our female respondents preferred cash payment is that even though it’s insecure, they can keep cash close to them, as opposed to relying on someone else’s bank or mobile money account. We need to think this through (and go back to ID as a key criteria for financial inclusion) before rashly advocating digital payments.

Takeaways and thoughts

  • Having an ID is not always a prerequisite for garment factory employment. However, employees seem to prefer this, when they realise ID will protect them. See for example, Moushumi and Asma’s stories in the video. Should the benefits of IDs be made clearer, especially by trade unions and rights organisations?
  • There are hacks used by factories and employees when there is no ID, e.g. faking birth certificates for those under age. Again, we ask whether rights organisations can help more on this, because it illustrates the risks people are willing to take which will have consequences on them.
  • There is a very tangible benefit in having an ID and encouraging family members to have IDs in terms of the nomination aspect if anything should happen to the worker — this could also be used as messaging towards adopting ID.
  • ID is a necessary prerequisite to financial inclusion. However, we need to explore the cultural gender interactions between husbands and wives/men and women in terms of how digital payments are actually accessed — under whose ID? Moving towards digital payments without considering gender dynamics may cause more dependency by female factory workers on men rather than their own empowerment.

Follow along on Twitter for more updates on our research and stay tuned for the report we’ll be publishing.

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