Bangladesh: Online workers and ID (5/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

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
  4. On garment factory 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.

“There are hours to be respected and a fixed rate per hour of work; benefits that domestic workers in the traditional referral model wouldn’t get. By asking workers to have an ID (at least a birth certificate), we create a safer and more formal environment that benefits both the worker and the customer.” — Co-founder of online platform Hello Task

There are a growing number of online companies in Bangladesh (especially in Dhaka) connecting buyers and sellers of services and goods. In addition to international platforms, Bangladeshi-based companies include Hello Task, connecting domestic workers to homeowners for either a single or a regular service, Romoni connecting beauticians to customers for an at-home treatment and Cook Ups connecting those who sell their home made cuisine to customers either on a regular scheme or one time request. Sheba is big online platform that offers different services, from car rental to beauty services.

As part of our When ID works for women research, within our sample of 80 respondents, including domestic workers and garment factory workers in Bangladesh, we interviewed 10 online workers (eight female and two male) working on different online platforms. We aimed to learn about their experiences with identification credentials at work and to what extent an ID is required to access online work as well as to protect and grow income.

The Hello Task interface

Defining online work

We define online workers here in a broad sense — those who do digital work (such as social media or other digital based tasks) as well as workers who source work on digital platforms (such as a cook, a beautician, a domestic worker). The demographics of online workers are varied. Some are from higher socio-economic backgrounds and with higher education than domestic and factory workers, while others come from similar social backgrounds. Domestic workers who find work online are at the intersection of those two worlds.

Online work formalises non-formal work and the role of ID verification is critical

Respondents suggested that working through online platforms provided a kind of security. Jesmin, a beautician who connects with clients through Sheba says:

“There’s a lot of stress you need to deal with if you don’t have a National ID card. Those without it often give up and say, ‘Fine, we don’t need to apply for a job here and there, we don’t need to progress. I don’t have to deal with this hassle”. — Jesmin

However, she credits getting her ID and through it, getting online work as increasing her income, opportunities and choice on which jobs she could take or not (including cutting down on travel).

A domestic help who uses Hello Task to find jobs said:

“I used to work as a cleaner in a hospital. I had very long hours and were not paid well. With the online platform, I was still a cleaner but the platform manager makes sure I work a maximum of 8 hours of work and it is better pay. Also we have to give our ID, and we have a badge that allows Hello Task to know where we are and come get us if there is a problem”.

Another self-employed worker mentioned:

“I had an incident with a customer who didn’t want to pay me the amount for all the services I had done for her and was compensated by Sheba”.

Both these are possible because of the need for ID verification when joining these platforms.

Both online platforms and workers put a strong emphasis on ID as an element of trust

Using Hello Task to find work. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

ID is perhaps even more important in digital (as opposed to physical) transactions between a worker and a customer who do not know each other and there is no context. According to the head of Hello Task:

“By asking workers to have an ID (at least a birth certificate) and by providing them a badge upon registration on our platform, this creates a safer and more formal environment that benefits both the worker and the house owner.”

Once the ID is approved by the platform, the customer knows that the service is provided by qualified and verified workers and the worker knows that it is a trustworthy platform. One worker said:

“At the beginning, I wasn’t very comfortable with the platform or the idea of going to Hello Task. I had heard rumours of risks of being trafficked, or not paid. But I got paid and was reassured. I am comfortable with online work now.”

In online work, ID is essential to be paid

In comparison to domestic workers and garment factory workers, online workers were the most aware of the need for a national ID in order to be paid through mobile money. As the mobile phone is their professional tool both for employment and payment, all were aware of how essential an ID is to get a SIM (unless they use someone else’s).

The online platform companies could not give figures but confirmed that many workers had to open mobile money accounts following their registration on the platform. As the CEO of Romoni said:

“Beauticians get paid via Bkash [one of the mobile money providers] and pay 10 or 20% commission to Romoni through Bkash. This payment method is more secure for the company, it wouldn’t be safe to have our drivers distribute all the salaries to every workers’ house, they could easily get mugged.” — CEO, Romoni

This could mean that online work is an effective incentive to make sure women get and keep their ID credentials with them.

By working online, some women may gain more agency over their identity

As discovered during our interviews, women may say they have an ID but not have immediate access to it until needing it for work. The CEO of Cook Ups said:

“During the start up’s first months, we would go interview housewives in their homes to check on the sanitary standards of their kitchens. During that interview, we would ask them for their IDs. In multiple cases, the women did not have their IDs which were left with the husbands, in a place of the house unknown to them. This process made women more aware of their IDs and develop agency.” — CEO, Cook Ups

The mandatory need for ID in online work or work through online means might mean that women become more aware of their ID and have ownership over it.

However, workarounds may increase dependencies

On the other hand, for those who do want to work through online means but don’t have an ID or don’t feel confident to establish a profile, there is a workaround of depending on others. Asha is a beautician. She does not have her own national ID or feel confident enough to register on the Romoni platform as a freelance beautician, so she’s entered into an arrangement with her cousin who takes the jobs on the platform and then outsources them to her. Asha says:

“When my cousin sees a job and she can’t do it, she asks me to do it — that way she gets more money and she pays me a fixed salary at the end of the month.” — Asha, beautician

However, in this way, Asha will not be able to build her own online reputation or have access any compensation through the platform if anything goes wrong. These workarounds may be empowering in some ways but also carry risks of dependencies on others for payment and reputation.

And some online workers use their husbands’ mobile money account, proving a limit to their own financial inclusion

Respondents explained that if they don’t have their own mobile money account, they can use their husbands’ bank accounts. The online platforms do not monitor that part.

“We do try to help them create their digital financial profiles for them to get loans but we don’t train them, just inform them.” CEO, Cook Ups.

This again raises the issue of whose ID is actually being used to access payment, and whether it may complicate questions of financial inclusion (does the man have more access over the woman’s income?)

Three domestic workers who use online platform Hello Task to find work. Two of them had their own financial accounts while the other used her husband’s. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

Takeaways and thoughts

  • ID, mainly the national ID card, is required to work through online platforms. In this way, the proof of identification acts as a guarantee for a trusted and quality service, particularly important in online platforms, where individuals do not know each other beforehand and do not rely on referrals.
  • Online platforms, by formalising informal work such as home cooking or domestic work, can provide a good incentive for women to obtain identification credentials in order to pursue better and more diverse income-generating opportunities.
  • Online work encourages, or demands, the use of mobile money, potentially leading women towards more financial independence and the ability to retain and grow their income. However, training, through governmental and non-governmental organisations, is still required to ensure women feel empowered to use these tools and fully leverage this opportunity.
  • All the above suggest that online work has the ability to incentivise women to not only obtain but keep their national ID cards with them. However, with a low BKash penetration amongst women in Bangladesh, there is also a risk that payment will occur through men’s accounts (just as most SIMs are registered through men). This has complex implications for ID and financial inclusion which we need to explore in more detail.

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Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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