Improving Financial Inclusion of Female Domestic Workers in Bangladesh Through MFS Training

Female domestic workers constitute a sizable fraction of women in paid work in Bangladesh. Of the estimated 10.5 million domestic workers in the country, 90% are women (Smertnik and Bailur, 2019). They are typically low-skilled migrants from rural areas driven to major cities due to financial pressures and expectations of wage employment and better earnings. Although they are connected to the cash economy through their wage earnings, very few female domestic workers have access to formal financial services or to a bank account. On the other hand, the majority have access to mobile phones and have used mobile money accounts at some point in their lives.

Despite their awareness of mobile money accounts, focus group discussions with the domestic workers in our study revealed an unmet demand for a better understanding of the offers and services available. A baseline survey of domestic workers showed that fewer than 5% have ever deposited money into their mobile money account. Half of the workers had previously sent money to someone else using mobile money, but they often relied on a family member or an agent to carry out these transactions on their behalf. This evidence provided the rationale for an intervention that offered training to female domestic workers on the use of mobile money services.

We organized a two-day training session on digital financial services. This training aimed to increase the women’s access to formal financial services via mobile money accounts, facilitating greater control over their income and ultimately enhancing their economic empowerment. Six modules were covered over the two days: Introduction to Mobile Financial Services (MFS), Using Mobile Financial Services, Financial Planning and Managing Money, Budgeting, Savings, and Talking About Finances With Family. These training materials were adapted from the HERFinance Digital Wages Curriculum. These sessions were organized in five training hubs, each one in an area of Dhaka city from which the study participants were recruited. A week before the start of each training session, we called each domestic worker targeted for that session to invite her to attend the training. A dedicated team continued to make reminder calls up to 24 hours before the training, and sent a gentle reminder on the day of the training. To cover the cost of their transport and foregone earnings for the time spent in training, study participants who completed the training received 12 US dollars (the average wage for 8 hours of domestic work in our baseline data was approximately 4 dollars).

Many of the women who had confirmed their attendance at the training did not show up. Of the 337 domestic workers who were offered training, only 156 (46%) attended the training, conducted between September and December 2022. A follow-up call with the absent domestic workers revealed that attending the training session posed a number of challenges. Although the intervention covered the cost of their transport and foregone earnings for the time spent in training, the distance to the hub and the difficulty of arranging transport meant that the opportunity cost of the time spent traveling to the training hub – which was not compensated – was substantial. Also, the time away from home during the training, when they would not be able to carry out their normal household duties, was difficult to justify to family members. More generally, competing demands on their time on the day of the training meant that many women were not able to go through with their original intention to attend the training.

Based on this feedback from the domestic workers, we developed a strategy to improve the inclusivity of the training programme: door-to-door training sessions and refreshers administered via automated calls. The door-to-door training was offered in the homes of the domestic workers. To increase the reach of the “at-home” training sessions, invitations to participate also went out to one or two other study participants who lived nearby and who were assigned to the same experimental arm. These sessions were conducted by the employer’s field agents who had previously attended the hub training and had prior experience working with domestic workers. By January 2023, we had provided training to another 116 domestic workers via door-to-door training, reaching 272 of the 337 (81%) domestic workers in the study sample.

In feedback provided following the session, the difficulty of traveling far from home – for a variety of reasons, including the presence of young children at home – frequently came up as a key reason why the domestic workers found the opportunity of at-home MFS training attractive.

To give the remaining 61 domestic workers a further opportunity for training (and to provide refreshers to all the targeted domestic workers), we designed “MFS Training Reminders” administered through Interactive Voice Response (IVR) calls. We prepared condensed versions of the six training modules. To test participants’ knowledge and understanding of the modules, we also prepared a quiz with two multiple-choice questions for each module. Participants who successfully completed the IVR training, which required correctly answering the quiz, received BDT 100 (about one US dollar) in their mobile money accounts.

The calls were administered to all of the 337 participants between May 2023 to September 2023. By September, about 27% of the study participants had completed the IVR training and another 32% had partially completed it. The remaining 41% had yet to start the IVR training.

Statistical analysis based on administrative and baseline data revealed that the door-to-door training was comparatively more successful than the hub training in reaching study participants who had not yet obtained work through HelloTask (all participants were registered on the platform). The door-to-door training was also more effective in reaching unmarried women, who may be more constrained in their movements outside of the home due to traditional norms regarding women’s mobility.

An end-line survey of the domestic workers was conducted in November 2023. Analysis of the end-line data, which is currently ongoing, will reveal whether the MFS training was effective in improving knowledge and usage of mobile money accounts and, more generally, the economic agency of the targeted population.

However, the experience with the intervention has already produced some important insights for the design of future interventions aimed at improving the financial inclusion of economically marginalized populations. First, the same factors that limit the economic agency of female domestic workers in Bangladesh – competing demands on their time and attention, limited mobility, and lack of decision-making power within their household – also prevented many from taking advantage of the MFS training.

Second, there is scope for adaptation and innovations that substantially improve the inclusivity of MFS training programmes. In the case of our study population, nudges in the form of reminder calls did not lead to significant changes in behavior; but adapting the intervention based on the participants’ feedback to improve access – such as the introduction of door-to-door training – had an important effect on participation. Moreover, door-to-door training may be more effective at reaching individuals who are new to, or less familiar with, the organization offering the training.