Sri Lanka: online workers and ID (9/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

Helene Smertnik and Savita Bailur

“Social media is something that is used by everyone these days. Rather than sell my products at the market I think it’s better to use social media.” Sarah, owner of an online beauty business in Sri Lanka.

Sarah is one of the 15 online workers we interviewed in Colombo and its outskirts, to discuss the opportunities online work have opened for women and the role of identification credentials (ID).

Caribou Digital’s When ID works for women’s research aims to understand the relevance of ID for women and work. 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. Here, we share thoughts from our Sri Lanka fieldwork on the segment of online workers*.

When working online, ID isn’t always required

Small entrepreneurs can start out/do their business online, informally

“I get most of my orders through known contacts and some online. I have joined a women entrepreneur’s group on Facebook and get some business through that once in a while. I haven’t formally registered my business.” Cynthi’s Kitchen, a caterer selling food online, described to us how she gets her business.

Small entrepreneur’s Facebook page, who also has a website but doesn’t use it nor promote it because it doesn’t offer an online payment option yet.

Most online workers we spoke with leveraged existing social media platforms — creating their own page on Facebook or using e-commerce platforms such as ikman.lk. This choice illustrates how micro-entrepreneurs may decide to grow their businesses: they will create a webpage on an existing online platform and receive orders through internal messaging apps. In fact this is how many respondents operated — at least to start their business.

This means that small entrepreneurs do not necessarily need to go through the step of formally registering their business and therefore, having a National ID is not needed at that stage. This informality is also possible because small businesses often deal with cash on delivery payments and do not go through formal payment platforms.

Freelancers don’t always need to provide ID to work online

Similar to business owners starting online, freelancers who work for outsourcing platforms do not necessarily provide their ID when they join. A person will, for example, do a translation service, or provide social media support for a client and will not provide an ID — only a bank account.

“When I hire freelancers, I may not ask them for their ID immediately, the references are what matter, as well as providing a bank account.” Jameera, owner of online work platform.

Another online platform, Second Team, has the same approach, the ID may not always matter, depending on the work. This said, the requirement for a bank account does suggest that the worker has an ID, only the online work platform does not position itself as the gatekeeper.

But ID is required as a business grows or work becomes more formal

Business owners who formally registered their online business do need an ID, in addition to a bank account and a permanent address.As seen in Sarah’s interview, she developed her beauty business both informally, through social media platforms and formally, by registering her business. Kiruthiga, owner of an online service company, went through the same process as Sarah:

“I registered my business using my identity card at the registrar. My financial accounts are being reported every year under my national ID.”

In addition, depending on the type of work being done, freelancers may also need to provide an ID.

“If the freelancer starts dealing with a lot or sensitive client data, they will sign a non disclosure agreement and we will do more formal ID checks.” Tina, founder of an online work platform.

Women registration to promote their products online. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

As seen in the photo above, during the research we attended a workshop for small entrepreneurs, who were mostly women, to join Grasshoppers, an e-commerce platform. We observed that for them to register, they had to fill a form, which also required their National ID. This did not constitute an obstacle to any of the women as they all had an ID.

Beyond ID, what limits women’s financial inclusion?

As illustrated through online workers’ experiences, working online doesn’t necessarily lead to a formal business — at least in the early stages — and therefore may not require ID, if only leveraging social media and cash payments. However, when ID is required, it does not pose any limitation given the prevalence of ID in Sri Lanka. This allows us to see what other barriers exist in terms of women’s financial inclusion, for women who do have an ID.

Cash payments are often preferred

None of the small businesses interviewed had integrated payment platforms (i.e. online payment methods), the two ways described to pay for an order were either cash upon delivery or a bank transfer to the business owner’s personal account.

The former — cash upon delivery — does not require any usage of an ID and may be a preferred payment method. Krishna, who runs a small online business said:

“In Colombo, where I do 60% of my sales, I often do cash upon delivery. I deliver the goods myself with my car. For deliveries outside of Colombo, I rely on a courier service and therefore ask for the payment in full, ahead of time. This is done via bank transfer.”

Advertising and communicating about her products on Facebook, the owner takes orders by private message or call and all is paid upon delivery.

Sarah leverages a delivery company and only does cash payments for the benefit of her customers rather than her own as she has a bank account.

“All my customers pay cash on delivery. I use a delivery company to deliver the parcels to the customer. At the time of collection the customer pays the full amount. That is good for the customer as well because she gives the money only after she gets the parcel to her hand. That is the most trusted method because if we ask the customer to deposit the money into an account, they are not sure whether they will get the product.”

Cash is preferred for many reasons but not because of lack of ID

Entrepreneurs we spoke with often preferred cash payments for different reasons, both practical and cultural — though not because of lack of ID given the prevalence in the country. Reasons for not using formal financial services include:

  • Logistics: the time consuming process of getting to a bank when outside of city centres
  • Digital literacy: the fear of making a mistake when setting up or using mobile money, the fear of hacking
  • Cultural norms: the concern that the husband may think they are using the phone too much

As a result, women would either use a relative or their husband’s account to get paid or opt to be paid in cash. In a few cases, they may also get paid in airtime, sent through by a relative who receives the money on their behalf.

Non-traditional employment may make financial inclusion more difficult

Some women entrepreneurs mentioned the difficulty in explaining their situation to their banks who did not have a ‘box’ to fit in their type of income as freelancers or online workers.

“It takes a lot of explaining everytime I check in a salary because it doesn’t always come from the same client and the amounts vary. The bank doesn’t make it easy for us to work in this way.” Dinudi, online worker

The hope is that procedures will adapt as the number of online business entrepreneurs grows in Sri Lanka but in the meantime, the difficulty in cashing in their income or the questions as to where their income comes from may act as a deterrent to financial inclusion.

Takeaways and thoughts

  • For online work, ID only really comes into question when an online business is formally registered or when the online freelancer is doing a job that requires more guarantee — and none of the women we spoke with said this was an issue. This possible (but not systematic) transition from informal to formal online business is worth exploring more to understand how female business owners encounter the process and the challenges they face — beyond ID.
  • Some interviewees from online platforms said checking ID was not a priority for them, unless it was to link bank accounts for payments. Others made it a basic requirement to register on their platform. In our report, we’ll explore the role for platforms to become ID gatekeepers — how responsible do they need to be? There is a major question of ID needed by women for financial services/banking and the link with online work.
  • As cash on delivery is still very common for online sales, online work doesn’t necessarily imply formal financial inclusion. This is not because of lack of ID for women but rather a need to raise awareness, break down misperceptions, and make access to these services easier for women.

*There are different types of online work: physical work found online (e.g. home baker who uses an online platform to get orders) or online work (e.g. translator or a person doing data entry who does small outsourcing jobs). In this blog, we see how ID requirements may vary depending on the type of online work as well as the stage of maturity of an online business.


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 fourth and last of our blogs from Sri Lanka.

Previous blogs are here:

On initial findings on When ID works for women in Sri Lanka

On ID and domestic workers

On ID and garment factory workers

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.

Sri Lanka: Garment factory workers and ID (8/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

By and large, Sri Lanka is a country where ID does work for women. Access and ownership of ID credentials is prevalent in Sri Lanka where people obtain ID at the age of 16, when passing their school exams. This is possible thanks to a good education system as well as efficient ID registration processes that include more vulnerable groups (including domestic workers). The counterpoint of this functioning system is that ID is almost taken for granted, as people do not face ID challenges when accessing services and work.

In this context and as part of the Commonwealth Identity Initiative, we conducted interviews with women and men, in Colombo and its outskirts to understand the role of ID in enabling women to access work and to retain and control their own income. In this blog, we share insights from our Sri Lanka fieldwork on the segment of garment factory workers.

Overall, we found that:

  • ID is a requirement to work in factories but as it is widespread, it isn’t what stops women from working in this sector;
  • Non-contracted daily work provides a flexibility (e.g. not working every day) for some women, in particular when becoming mothers, but loose work structures allow underage employment to occur (see Navodika’s video interview);
  • Financial inclusion comes with stable work and income and not solely from having an ID.

ID is required to work in factories and getting it is generally not a problem

“They [factory managers] asked for the identity card, Village Headman’s certificate, bio-data, school leaving certificate and all that was provided. It’s true I did not have the Village Headman’s certificate so I had to go back to my hometown to get it but that was easy — as long as the headman knows you and that your name is on the electoral register.” Dinesha, a 22 year old garment factory worker.

All the women we interviewed had been asked for their ID credentials when applying for work in factories and, in the majority of cases, they were able to produce them. Having an ID is enough of a priority in Sri Lanka — due to security more than work reasons — that most people have their documents with them. And if they do not, they are able to get them fairly swiftly, as Dinesha explained, provided they are known in the area they live in.

In fact, factory management is stringent on ID requirements for permanent employees. Not only do they ask for several different ID credentials, i.e. not only the National ID, but they often will keep them.

“They take the originals of all these documents and release them when we are leaving. They took the school leaving certificate,a letter of reference — everything. They want to control and make sure they can keep us from leaving without notice.” Shirone, 35, permanent factory worker.

After a 6 month to one year probation period the workers we spoke to said they receive a gate pass which will allow them to go about the factory premises freely.

A factory zone pass. Photo credit: H.Smertnik

However, some nuances of discrimination are evident — Tamil workers mentioned that management would ask them to keep their ID at all times, in addition to the pass.

“We have to show our ID and the gate pass everytime we go in and out, because we come from Jaffna and are Tamil, whereas others [Sinhala] just show their pass.” Asin, 19

Non-contract “daily work” can be a conscious choice for some women

About half of the garment factory workers we spoke with work through placement (manpower) agencies. For some women, this kind of daily work is a conscious choice as non-contracted daily work can have advantages, as described by Shermila:

Shermila, in her house as she comes back from work. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“Considering that as a permanent worker in Katunayake I would earn 28,000Rs ($155) per month for very hard work — long hours of work and being under pressure and aggression — it is fine for me to earn only 20–25,000Rs ($110 — $140) and have less stress and more flexibility as a daily worker.” Shermila, 39

In addition to the lack of commitment to very hard work described by Shermila and Udeshika, daily workers mentioned other advantages:

  • Flexibility such as increased leave compared to permanent, contracted work — more conducive to raising and caring for a family;
  • Quick access to money through daily cash payments, while permanent workers are by default paid monthly, through bank transfers.

However, working through manpower agencies also means fewer checks, which we discuss next.

Non-contracted work can come with risks

Women who worked for manpower agencies, or for smaller factories, gained a flexibility but gave up on a level of security and social protection at work, in particular if under age workers.

We heard from respondents that manpower agencies can overlook underage employment. If an under-age potential employee shows her ID, some agencies will either accept it or suggest she uses another ID, such as their siblings or a fake one. One NGO worker suggested that some agencies kept IDs in a drawer for those cases of workers without ID. Factories can also be in collusion with this situation:

Young Tamil women working in the Katunayake factory zone. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“I’ve worked since 16. I have my ID and it says my age. When the management sees that, they don’t give you the ‘formal factory pass’, instead you get a white pass — which in a way shows that you aren’t fully eligible to working as an employee.” B Sumuduni, 20

Of course, this may be useful for the under-age girl who wants to work and earn, but puts her at risk. Another NGO worker told us how a young girl had been burnt at work but because of her fake ID, didn’t receive any help:

“She had got work in a factory with a fake ID. When she got burned with some chemicals she needed money for new clothes, the factory refused to help her because they said she wasn’t who she said she was. So we are trying to help her.”

Lack of social protection is a risk, and many daily workers did not have pension and welfare plans.

Another interviewee -Navodika – illustrates this precarious position further, from her using her sister’s ID to another fake one, to the extent she didn’t even know her name was being called out to on “pay day” because it was the name on the fake ID she was using.

Offering a more flexible, less committed approach to work in factories provides an alternative to permanent employment for many of the women interviewed, in particular when they become mothers and have care for their children. However, the ID loopholes need to be examined and addressed — especially to protect children who may work under-age.

ID means access to formal financial services but doesn’t necessarily lead to further financial inclusion

Daily workers we spoke with commonly preferred to be paid in cash. This is not because they did not have bank accounts — most often they do, as they have ID — but rather for convenience. They also had limited savings, as earnings are used for outgoing expenses almost immediately.

Permanent workers, on the other hand, are paid monthly into bank accounts directly and contribute a part of their salary to social schemes (pension and welfare). Permanent workers we spoke with also seemed to try to save and sometimes have the confidence to take loans given the greater stability of their work, compared to daily workers.

“My son plays cricket and is in the school team. My biggest dream is that he continues at school and gets educated. So when he needed to buy a bat, I got a loan because it was about Rs 50,000 [$280]. I have to pay that off for months.” Deepika, 42

“I took a loan to build a house and I can repay it in 5 years. I did it at a time where I had saved quite a bit because I had done lots of overtime work. Now, overtime has lessened and I do feel the pinch. To get the loan, I showed my ID and had two guarantors — women who work with me and earn a regular salary.” Nayana, 28

Comparing these two situations highlights that ID — though the critical first step to access formal financial services — doesn’t necessarily lead to financial inclusion. Some level of stability at work seem to be a bigger factor in encouraging women to save and take loans than is having an ID.

Takeaways and thoughts

  • A context where women largely do have their ID credentials allows us to think about what else is required beyond that fundamental — though often forgotten or taken for granted — first step in accessing work.
  • Loopholes or “shady practices” in identity verification still exist — especially by smaller intermediaries such as manpower agencies. The role of these ID intermediaries needs to be researched more.
  • Lack of financial inclusion is not directly related to ID (because most women do have ID) but other factors, such as needing cash immediately, not having time to go to the bank or not seeing the value of pensions and more long-term benefits.

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 third of our blogs from Sri Lanka. Previous blogs are here:

Initial findings from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Domestic worker and ID

And 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, the NGO Stand Up Movement, and our advisory panel for their support.

Sri Lanka: Domestic workers and ID (7/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

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 past 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.
  • At the same time, for domestic workers, ID does not equal financial inclusion. Employers and employees both seem to privilege cash in hand rather than payment through mobile money and banking. Much of this relates to workers feeling they don’t have enough to save as well as cultural norms, preferring to use informal financial methods.

— —

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.

Women and ID in a digital age: Five fundamental barriers and new design questions

By Dr. Savita Bailur (Caribou Digital) Devina Srivastava (ID2020) and Hélène Smertnik (Caribou Digital)

Identity is a human right … a woman’s right …

“I think we women need Aadhaar more than men … it’s not just our identity, but we also need it to look after our family and children. I am the one who takes my daughters to the hospital, deals with their school. I am the one who will get the rations or get new gas cylinders. But they [the government] don’t think of any of this when they tell you it’s your job to get an Aadhaar card but don’t help you”

(Saguna, resident of “Garudahalli” in rural Karnataka, interviewed for Caribou Digital’s Identities research, India)

The first principle of the manifesto developed by ID2020 in consultation with UNHCR is that identity is a universal human right. Individuals must have the ability to prove who they are, without reliance on any single government or institution. Equally, at Caribou Digital, where “identification in a digital age” has been the focus for more than five years, Saguna’s comment has echoed throughout Caribou Digital’s fieldwork: women are in need of identification credentials just as much, if not more, than men, but often struggle to obtain them. Women and girls comprise an underserved demographic in terms of identification. The World Bank estimates that in low income countries over 45% of women lack a foundational ID. ID systems being developed in a digital age need to be gender-sensitive to truly serve the identification needs of women and girls.

Ahead of the ID2020 Annual Summit, this piece calls out five challenges that women face while accessing ID. These are based on our joint learnings — at ID2020 from the ID2020 Alliance and at Caribou Digital, from the research on identification Caribou Digital has conducted across ten countries to date (Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uganda).

Fieldwork in New Delhi for Caribou Digital’s Identities research in India. Photo credit: Dr. Savita Bailur
A Syrian refugee in Lebanon for Caribou Digital’s Identity at the Margins research. Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

… But women face five main barriers

1. Barriers of information

Women are less aware and informed as compared to the men in their families, especially with respect to service access. The barrier to information is combined with the cultural barrier — of expectations — where some women can feel (or are made to feel) ID is not relevant to them. In Caribou’s India research, a female homemaker in rural Assam called in her 14 year old nephew when asked about ID during the interview “ask him — he can tell you more about all that than me” she said.

ID2020 believes that successful digital ID systems will require listening to and working intimately with those who our efforts seek to empower, and delivering solutions based on the needs that these parties express. Multi-channel informational campaigns are an integral part of ensuring enrollment. There lies a need for more research and investment in understanding the following:

  1. What are the channels and avenues accessed highly by women and girls?
  2. What are the methods utilized to specifically inform women and girls around digital identity?
  3. What are the opportunities that digital identity creates for women and girls, and how are these opportunities communicated to them?

2. Barriers of access

We live in a digital era. Individuals need a trusted, verifiable way to prove who they are, both in the physical world and online, to assert who they are as well as access services . But for many women, there’s simply no time to get an ID when earning and putting food on the table is a greater priority. Shilpi was a domestic worker and single mother without an ID in Caribou Digital ’s When ID Works for Women research in Bangladesh. Even though she wanted her ID, she said “I can’t take time off from work to go to the village to get a chairman’s certificate [village headman certificate] for an ID. It’s simple, the days I don’t work, I won’t get paid”.

See Shilpi’s story:

Barriers to ID lead to other barriers, such as financial inclusion. Caribou Digital’s research reiterates World Bank’s Findex study that on the whole men own more mobile banking accounts than women, which leads many women to channel salaries through husband/father/brother bank accounts. This creates further dependencies and limits the independence that ID systems hope to enable (though being protected behind other identities may also be preferred by some women).

In Côte d’Ivoire, Caribou Digital found a 2017 SIM registration process impacted on women who did not have identification credentials, locking them out of mobile money accounts. Photo credit: Hélène Smertnik

ID2020 believes that in order to enable digital identity at scale, there is a need to identify and leverage many entry points. For instance, maternal healthcare service delivery presents a tremendous opportunity to provide women and health workers with a durable, portable and secure digital identity at a vital stage of life, enabling access to a wider range of social services, while also improving access to health interventions that all women deserve and need. It is important to ask:

  1. What are the measures taken to ensure that women can access support around their ID at ease (including registration and enrolment)?
  2. How does digital identity help women and girls feel more protected and secure in their environments?
  3. Who else has access to the digital ID of a woman or girl?

3. Barriers of ownership

Shilpi’s example above illustrates the extra transaction cost in getting an ID, which adds to it becoming a low priority. Once a woman does get an ID, an additional issue is ownership over it. Owning someone’s ID is owning their identity. In a poorer area of Recife, Brazil for UNICEF research, Caribou Digital learnt about how gang members often held onto IDs as collateral for payments (for drugs), sometimes even mistakenly holding on to someone else’s ID.

In India, in-laws held onto Shailaja’s IDs (voter ID, Aadhaar) so when she escaped from the joint-family home, she had to start afresh, relying on her brother’s credentials to rent a flat in Bengaluru. Domestic workers in the Middle East have reported similar instances of passports being withheld by employers.

In Bangladesh, a start-up online catering company said one of the major issues they first encountered was that women did not physically keep their ID cards (which they need to register with the service) with them — the men typically kept these, so they had to ask the husbands to give these to them, which raised other issues of whether the husbands were comfortable with them working. In many families, this may be simply a question of habit (who keeps the important documents in the family?), but raises the point of owning one’s own identification credential.

The ID2020 approach emphasises that individuals must have control over their own digital identities, including how personal data is collected, used, and shared. Everyone should be able to assert their identity across institutional and national borders, and across time.

  1. How can ID systems ensure women and girls have complete control over their own digital identities and linked services?
  2. What are the measures taken to ensure that women and girls are not listed as dependents to IDs possessed by the men in their households?
  3. How is informed consent over access, linkage to service delivery, dependencies and ownership ensured for women?

4. Barriers of societal expectations

Access to ID is heavily affected by societal perceptions (by men and women) of the need for ID for women. New ID systems can complicate these — for example, Caribou research on refugees found that as South Sudanese women often fled before male relatives to Uganda, they were registered in Ugandan camps as heads of households. This empowered them as the official recipients of UNHCR rations and Ugandan government land, but often led to domestic violence as male heads of household sought to reclaim their position.

These societal power relations can create significant risk if digital ID programs are not thoughtfully designed and carefully implemented. At ID2020, we do not underestimate the risks of technical, social and data complications, misuse and abuse, especially in cases of large-scale centralized ID systems. This “better” model of digital identity requires sustained and transparent collaboration across all stakeholders on the ground. It is important to be sensitive to societal complexities and power dynamics, and design ID systems to capture these. New ID programmes (digital) are an opportunity to ensure that ID enrolment and systems take into account those sensitivities.

  1. What are the behavioural nudges designed in the digital ID programs?
  2. What are the efforts towards gender literacy designed to educate members in the community (across all stakeholders)?
  3. How are the men and boys included in programs focused on women and girls?
A woman registering for a bank account in Assam, India for Caribou Digital’s Identities Research. Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

5. Barriers of intersectionality

Race, ethnicity, class, income, geographic diversity within women are all factors which influence ID take-up for women. In our Caribou Digital Côte d’Ivoire research, women of Burkinabe ethnicity stated they faced more challenges obtaining IDs than those who were treated as “Ivorian” by enrolment agents. An extremely impoverished female sex worker in India (one of our respondents) may have a very different approach (and resources) to obtaining an ID than a female East African trader, such as those in this World Bank video. In India, when domestic workers do not have Aadhaar (or a mobile phone), the female employer (“lady of the house”) can often help the worker get one (Tripti Lahiri has interesting examples in her book Maid in India). This was found to be particularly the case just after demonetisation when employers could only pay employees through mobile money, so often helped with “onboarding of identification”.

See female cross-border traders in East Africa:https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2Fvideoseries%3Flist%3DPLopq6yGfmFAt4QTZB2GjmcvKybZyeQccN&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DQOKs9KWu_ok&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FQOKs9KWu_ok%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

These intersectional differences between women should be explored because they also open up opportunities.

  1. What are other social or cultural factors that may complicate access in local contexts?
  2. What are the measures taken to capture possibilities of intersection between gender and other social factors?
  3. Is access to ID always along existing divisions (e.g. race, ethnicity, class, income, geographic diversity) or can women use ID to “leapfrog” forward?

Going forward

All the above barriers are interlinked. To ensure that digital ID programs truly serve women and girls, gender considerations must be examined throughout the program journey. Privacy, portability persistence and personal are necessary elements for digital identity systems to meaningfully empower and protect individuals. Achieving the ambition of digital ID depends on shifting the locus of control away from institutions and towards the individual. This is essential to safeguarding access and opportunities, and obtaining scale.

Caribou Digital: Thanks to all our respondents, research teams and funders (Australian Aid, DfID, Omidyar Network, UNICEF, World Bank) for supporting our ID research.

ID2020: We would like to thank all our Alliance members, Advisory Committee members and Program Partners for their support.

Sri Lanka: initial findings on women, work and ID (6/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

In August 2019, we conducted fieldwork in Colombo, Sri Lanka to understand the role of ID for women and work, as part of the Commonwealth Identity Initiative. Our research explores the role of ID in both enabling women to access a wider variety of income generating opportunities and to retain and control their own income.

We collectively spoke with more than 80 people (mostly women) in and around Colombo, including domestic workers, garment factory workers and online workers. We also interviewed employers in these three sectors and development experts.

This is the first blog of a series on our research in Sri Lanka.

Gayani (left) holds the old laminated paper ID and Rangala holds a new smart ID. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

Women have access to ID in Sri Lanka

By and large, Sri Lanka is a country where ID does work for women. Access and ownership of ID credentials is prevalent in Sri Lanka, and therefore almost taken for granted, enabling women to think beyond the need for ID and focus rather on the choices they have when it comes to work and income. As ID ownership is the norm, it is particularly challenging for those who don’t have ID or who have lost it (see Gayani & Puni’s stories below).

There is both high birth registration (97% — according to UNICEF’s 2017 data) and high national ID enrollment (95 percent of men and 90 percent of women according to the World Bank’s 2017 Findex survey). Almost everyone we interviewed in Colombo and the outskirts — from the most vulnerable to the wealthiest — had their identification credentials, though we acknowledge this might be different in other parts, especially the post-war north and east of the country. The government is also moving towards smart IDs which have a machine readable bar code in addition to fingerprinting. Some of the women we spoke to had heard about these and a few had them, though the majority still had paper, laminated IDs.

ID is widespread in Sri Lanka thanks to a robust registration system, supported by schools and the village councils, called Gram Sevakas. The National ID (NID) enrollment occurs at age 16 when students sit for “O-level” exams (school exam passed between 14 and 16 years old). Obtaining the NID is not linked to passing the exam itself, which ensures the broadest coverage possible. Further, according to UNICEF data from 2017 there is no difference between male and female birth registration — both are at 97% — and according to the World Bank’s 2017 Findex Survey, there is a small gender difference in uptake of national ID — 5% of male population does not have a national ID, compared to 10% of the female population. The major populations who are affected by a lack of an ID are tea estate workers, who are typically of Tamil origin. Tea estate workers were only recently given voting rights (and therefore voter IDs) in 2007.

Lily (60, a factory worker) says she would not have gotten her national ID had it not have been for the campaign in her village. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

Widespread ID ownership means that using ID to access work is the norm

In Sri Lanka, the prevalence of IDs for both men and women means that women — the focus of our research — are enabled to access work and rarely think about the case of not having an ID because it’s so common to have one.

In the sample of 80+ women we spoke with, almost everyone had their identification credentials (the National ID and/or a village headman’s certificate, and the birth certificate). From these interviews, we learned that in the domestic sector employers ask for an ID and keep a photocopy — in particular for “daily” workers who do not live at the house. In factories, whether permanent employee or daily worker, an ID is required to work. However, the need for ID for online work is more nuanced. Some online platforms do not require an ID, and most payments are done as cash on delivery. In some cases though, there may be a need for ID to enable online payment.

In the context of ID prevalence, loss makes vulnerable communities even more dependent on intermediaries

In our demographic, only 3 people (2 women, 1 man) did not have an ID and this was because they had misplaced and not replaced them. Re-issuing their IDs would require them to go back to their birthplace and be vouched for by someone, which none of them could achieve. Gayani and Puni’s stories show how challenging this is and the impact it can have.

Gayani, factory worker, 18 years old

“I tried to apply for my identity card but I was not known in this area (Katunayake, about one hour from Colombo). They [the factory employers] asked me for a certificate from the Village Headman. When I went back to my hometown, our Village Headman did not know me because I grew up in a hostel and from then on I was moving from place to place so he didn’t want to give me a certificate. In the meantime, I used a family member’s, which the factory accepted. I eventually got help from this labour rights NGO, ‘Stand Up’. There I got the help of a lawyer and eventually got the NID.”

Puni, domestic worker, 28 years old

Puni, in front of her house in a informal housing area, where she lives with her husband and his family. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“In the house that I worked for now they asked me for ID but I don’t have it, I lost it. As I got the work through known contacts, they allowed me to work.

I carry a police report with me… it’s been around 4 years since I lost the ID. The police gave me a letter, and asked me to get the National Identity card within one month. But due to both personal family problems and financial difficulties, I couldn’t get it. My husband doesn’t allow me to visit my hometown to meet my family or get the documents.

All these four years I didn’t try to get an ID but now I really need these documents because I have a baby. I haven’t even got a birth certificate for my baby yet, and she is already 8 months.”

Going beyond ID, other factors affect access to better work

The women we spoke to stated education, experience, and connections as additional factors impacting access to work beyond the ownership of an ID, given how prevalent and essential it is for all types of work.

Prevalence of ID does not protect women from work issues

Ownership of ID does not protect under-age workers as some employers still recruit under-18s despite seeing their age. Employment agencies too have a role to play, as some employees mentioned how they facilitate fake IDs for them, especially if they are under-age.

Anusha — a garment factory worker at 17

Anusha at her parents’ home that she expects to leave when she marries her boyfriend who has a farm. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“I was encouraged to work by my sister who worked in the same factory area. As I was just 17 at the time, I couldn’t be hired to become a permanent employee so I went to a manpower agency who accept those from the age of 16.

At the time, I only had the postal identity card not the national identity card. My sister and I have the same initials so I used my sister’s identity card and got the job. After she got married, I couldn’t use her ID anymore, she thought she would get into trouble. But one of the manpower agencies had a set of extra identity cards and photocopies that they would give to people like us who do not have identity cards so I could continue working, factories don’t check photographs just the name.

It is not legal to work before 18 — even if I had an ID — so when there are audits at the agencies, the factory will hide those who are underage or ask them to leave by another gate. If you haven’t reached the factory yet when the auditors come, they will tell you to come later. The problem is, you need to compensate later for those hours you haven’t done and because we are not permanent workers we don’t get a better rate for overtime.”

ID can increase access to formal financial services, but using informal financial services is more prevalent

ID is essential for KYC (know your customer) processes in banks and most of the respondents had a bank account — some were encouraged by their employer — although the accounts were not always active. We note that this reflects the situation of Colombo and outskirts only, as it may differ elsewhere in the country.

Despite this move to formal banking, many women we interviewed still use informal savings and loans that do not always require ID but may be less secure, such as friends/neighbour savings groups called “seettu” or pawning of their jewelry.

Mobile money services were not commonly used for a range of reasons both cultural and practical, such as the need to go to an agent as not familiar with the system, the fear of hacking or making a mistake when using mobile money, the concern of using data and that the husband may think they are using the phone too much.

“It’s better to give something you possess and take the money rather than going for loans. We can redeem this at any time when we have the money but the process for getting a bank loan is very long and we need guarantors.” Samanwathi, 28, domestic worker

“I know about mobile money: you give the money to the communication [agent] and the recipient collects the money from a communication [agent]close to his or her home on production of the PIN number. No ID. I think it’s convenient when the banks are closed, for emergencies, but I don’t use it.” Shirone, 32, factory worker

Takeaways and thoughts

We will explore the domestic, factory and online sectors in more detail in future blogs, but our initial takeaways are:

  • The current Sri Lanka enrollment process is streamlined and has ensured high ID uptake across the country, including for women and girls, lifting any major obstacle to access work. There could be learnings from the process that are relevant to countries which don’t have high ID enrollment.
  • While the enrollment process has resulted in high prevalence of ID across the country, it was noted that the process for replacing a misplaced ID may be difficult for some, particularly transient, populations. This is where some NGOs have stepped in to fill the gap, but where the government could play a stronger role.
  • ID doesn’t stop factories hiring underage girls — ID is viewed as a means to prove who you are, with less emphasis on how old you are. The role of manpower/employment agencies as ID intermediaries (and how they are regulated/monitored) needs more attention.
  • While ID is required to access formal financial services like banking, ID doesn’t necessarily lead to formal financial inclusion as non-formal methods (e.g. seettu and pawning) are still preferred over formal banking services. There may be a role for employers to play in encouraging women’s financial inclusion.

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 first of our blogs from Sri Lanka. 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.

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.

For more, follow us on Twitter.

Bangladesh: Garment factory workers and ID (4/12 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

*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.

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 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.

Bangladesh: Domestic workers and ID (3/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

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?
  2. When ID works for women: initial findings from 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.

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.

See Shilpi’s story, 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).
  • Linked to this is an open question, ‘Should ID be a requirement to access domestic work?’ and ‘What might be the short-term and long-term implications of making ID a requirement in terms of both inclusion/exclusion and benefits/repercussions?’
  • Instead of making ID a requirement, could the barriers to entry for women be lowered or customised for this group of domestic workers. For example, facilitated support to obtain an ID, review of current ID process and timings for obtaining an ID, and targeted awareness raising through female leaders who can share knowledge and benefits around IDs to nudge ID uptake?
  • In formal financial services, ID is required as part of “knowing your customer” or KYC. Yet, ID alone is not sufficient to access financial services independently. Supporting behavioural change, education around financial literacy, digital literacy, female agents etc. should also be considered to ensure a holistic approach to addressing financial independence.
  • While we can’t advocate for compulsory need for ID in domestic work (because it would impact negatively on many women for whom this is more accessible work without ID), what is clear is that the women we spoke to do feel more secure if they have one. There will be more on this from our research!

Bangladesh: initial findings on women, work and ID (2/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

“Before we didn’t have any freedom and respect. With an ID, I can work and get the money and freedom to spend for the family. I feel much better about it now that I am earning and it is not just my husband supporting us.” (Ruma, garment factory worker)

In April 2019 we conducted fieldwork in Dhaka, Bangladesh to explore the role of ID for women and work, as part of the Commonwealth Identity Initiative. Our overall question sought to explore:

  1. The potential role of ID in enabling women to access a wider variety of income generating opportunities
  2. The potential role of ID in enabling women to retain and control their own income

We conducted focus group discussions and key informant interviews, collectively speaking with more than 80 people. We spoke with domestic workers, garment factory workers and online workers to answer these two questions. We also interviewed employers, development experts and male workers in Dhaka and its outskirts (see interview break-down at the end of the blog). Over the month of June, we will be publishing a series of more detailed blogs on each of these demographics from Bangladesh, and in September, comparative research from Sri Lanka. Here we share our overall thoughts.

A focus group discussion with female garment factory workers. Photo credit: BizInsights

ID holds great value in Bangladesh … for the most part

The Bangladesh national ID was originally a paper-based laminated card issued as part of voter registration in 2006 to everyone over 18. As a result, many of those we interviewed used “voter ID” and “national ID” interchangeably — the voter ID has become the national ID. For the past three years — since 2016 — new smart IDs with chips and biometrics have been issued. This has led numerous people to exchange/upgrade their paper-based national ID for the “smart ID”.

The national ID and new smart ID in Bangladesh. Source: Google

The value of ID for respondents is very clear. It was cited as critical by our respondents:

  • For children’s education — to enroll children at school
  • To deliver a child at the hospital
  • To travel outside the home and not be bothered when you get home late at night
  • To bury your family members (you need your ID and their ID)
  • To rent a house, in particular “in better areas”
  • To buy land
  • To open a bank account or a formal savings account
  • To buy a SIM card
  • To be recognised as a citizen of Bangladesh and not be considered a foreigner/ refugee

At the same time, the importance of ID varied according to the job women were looking for or held, as explored next.

“Better”, safer jobs inevitably require ID

While ID was deemed essential to access numerous services, we were interested in diving deeper into exploring whether ID increases access to a wider variety of income generating opportunities and allows women to retain, control and grow their own income. On this, our findings were mixed.

We found there is a spectrum of ID requirements: the more formal the job, the more likely the need for ID. The experiences of domestic, factory and online workers illustrated that spectrum.

Domestic workers are less likely to view ID as essential to accessing work

Domestic workers were the largest demographic in our sample who did not hold national IDs. For example, Shilpi, a domestic helper who works in four homes has not yet found the time to obtain her ID. Shilpi has reasoned that as it is not currently required for her do her job, she cannot justify the effort and time off work to obtain her ID. Halima started working 9 months ago after becoming a single mother. She doesn’t think an ID will help her directly in getting out of poverty to get a better job but she knows that it has helped her get a mobile SIM and housing. She believes it will help in opening a bank account one day.

Interviewing Halima, a domestic worker, at her employer’s house (with interviewee and employer permission). Photo credit: H. Smertnik

ID is required if women want to increase employment opportunities by working online

On the other hand, Jesmin, a beautician who works through the online platform Sheba xyz, wouldn’t have been able to work through the platform without an ID. To verify her identity, Jesmin had to upload her National ID and two photos to join the platform. Without this verification of identity accessing the opportunities on the platform is not possible. She encouraged her colleague to join her online business but the colleague couldn’t justify going through the hassle of getting an ID, so she is only able to work in beauty salons — with lesser pay.

ID affords access to better benefits and wages in compliance factories

Factory workers were aware of the need to have an ID to work in compliance factories and have the chance to get better pay and more benefits than in non-compliant, non-formal factories. Moushumi, a garment factory employee we interviewed, said:

“We won’t be able to find jobs anywhere without an ID card. Nobody will want to hire us because they can’t trust who we say we are. You need it to open a bank account, then you will need it to join a union and learn about your rights at work. You need it if something happens to you, and you want the benefits to be passed to your family.”

Garment factory workers holding their work IDs. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

ID is an essential credential for financial inclusion, but not sufficient

The connection between ID and financial inclusion is less direct. Respondents were hesitant to open a bank account or mobile account due to a variety of reasons like wanting easy access to cash and feeling like they wouldn’t have access with an account. Some felt they didn’t have enough to save, or were not comfortable with their digital literacy skills to use mobile money. Additionally, the process of opening an account as a women often means providing personal information to a male agent, which can be uncomfortable.

As a result of these obstacles, women often either use their husbands’ accounts or register their SIMs under male members of the household. This brings up the question if these women would have true ownership over their finances if they used mobile money — on the contrary, they may become more dependent on their husbands. Having an ID is the critical first step to financial inclusion, but without facilitated procedures and education on the benefits of having their own accounts, just having an ID is not sufficient for women to feel confident opening accounts.

We’re still analysing all of our 80 interviews and editing the short films from three interviewees, but what’s clear is that ID is an essential credential for women in Bangladesh to access formal work and to access formal financial services. As Ruma, a garment factory worker, says (at the start of this blog):

“Before we didn’t have any freedom and respect. With an ID, I can work and get the money and freedom to spend for the family. I feel much better about it now that I am earning and it is not just my husband supporting us.”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

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.

See also our partner GSMA’s report on women and digital identification in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Rwanda.

Note on our research methods:

10 expert and front line worker interviews in Bangladesh (included development organizations, labour rights NGOs, management of online platforms and factories)

10 focus group discussions with men and women (separately), a total of around 50 individuals (2 male and 8 female FGDs. Women’s groups were divided into domestic workers, factory workers and online workers)

20 individual interviews, out of which three were made into short films (we asked individuals in the focus groups if they would be willing to speak more on their experiences. Three of these interviewees were filmed and made into short films (to be shared on upcoming blogs)).

When ID works for women: What’s the role of identification in helping women get access to work? (1/10 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

Written for International Women’s Day 2019

Savita Bailur and Hélène Smertnik

Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

We look forward to your thoughts and feedback on new research we’re starting at Caribou Digital on women, work and ID!


Today, around the world, women’s achievements are being celebrated and recognized, marked by International Women’s Day. As we celebrate the economic progress women have made, we wanted to introduce some new research we are working on at Caribou Digital that looks at an important topic and its contribution to the gender parity discussion: women, work and identification. More specifically, to what extent does identification help women get stable, secure work in emerging economies?

Much of the linear thinking around “women and ID” is that identification will enable women to access services such as health and education, to secure fair employment, to open a bank account, to protect them and enable them to participate politically and socially. In short, that identification will both empower and protect women. But what evidence do we have on the benefits of identification for accessing work? What role does ID play in getting and keeping a job, and protecting income? Through this project supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we will be tackling these questions. We’ll also explore what we mean by “identification” and what types of identification the women we interview value.

What is the research saying and what is it missing?

Here’s what is emerging from all the intersecting research on women, work and identification: female workforce participation has been steadily rising since 1990 according to the World Bank. At the same time, opportunities to either find work or conduct work (online or offline) are multiplying in a global, digital age. This can be something as simple as women using mobile phones as a tool to find work or to maintain contact with customers and suppliers. In our Digital Lives in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda work, we found many of the women we spoke to set up small business on WhatsApp and Facebook to sell goods. In other research on female entrepreneurs who sell personal care and makeup in Khartoum, home-based work is appealing to the women as it preserves the status quo. They don’t need to leave the house but can still earn an income. We question elsewhere how this means “empowerment” but it does provide women an income and some level of independence.

Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

People’s experiences of identification has been a focus of our work at Caribou Digital which has revealed a number of insights, like the thirteen themes we explore here. We have a number of pieces published for various clients looking at private sector identity providers, experiences of identification (including Aadhaar) in India, and refugee experiences of identification in Jordan, Lebanon and Uganda. We’ve also done an internal study on identification experiences of vulnerable groups in a West African country for the World Bank.

However, we’ve found a gap in knowledge on how the identification journey looks for job-seeking women. What is the role of identification for them? In our India research, for example, we found many women suddenly needed bank accounts after demonetization to be paid digitally by employers, but lacked supporting documents (e.g. anything with a proof of address). In Lahiri’s Maid in India, employers and employment agencies can be enablers to identification but can also block it. In our own research, we found that sometimes women’s in-laws or employment agencies kept IDs for collateral, so women were limited in what they could do or where they could go. The assumption is that with identification, women will be able to find more secure work, protected by a contract. Mastercard Foundation terms such work as formal, with a steady wage, and dignified and fulfilling.

Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

We’ll be doing this research in parallel with two other streams (World Bank and GSMA respectively) in the Commonwealth gender-focussed ID programme. GSMA’s research is here, surfacing initial findings of a common cultural narrative that women need ID less in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Nigeria, and the impact of this on next generations. This is the start of women-focussed ID research GSMA will be undertaking over the next year.

We’ll be working on this between now and September 2019, publishing a series of blogs that dive into findings from our research in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We’d love to hear your thoughts and get your feedback. Please ping @SavitaBailur on Twitter if you’d like to know more or have something to add to this important conversation! Otherwise, stay tuned.