Garment Worker Diaries Bridge the Gap between Stories and Statistics

by Guy Stuart
2 weeks ago

At Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) we have a belief that good decisions are made on the basis of good data. That is why we are a leader in collecting detailed Diaries data on the economic lives of low-income people across the globe. We also know that data can overwhelm people, graphs can be difficult to read, and talk of medians, means, ranges and other statistical jargon is confusing. People prefer stories, yet stories can be dismissed as anecdotes, unless they are backed by statistics.

In this context, MFO and SANEM, a research institute based in Dhaka, have been collecting the Garment Worker Diaries from 1,300 workers across Bangladesh every week since January. Before that we were collecting weekly data from a smaller but growing number of workers, starting in July 2018. Through our new Data Portal we are pleased to share with you data on the financial lives of over 600 workers in the global apparel and textile supply chain in Bangladesh for whom we collected at least 10 weeks of data from July to December 2018. That is a lot of data: at least 6,000 weeks of data. To help you engage with the data, we have built a site that allows you to read the story of each individual worker in the context of workers who live in the same region or at the same pay grade (“experience level” in the graphs). You can select a particular month to look at, if you choose. Or you can “dig deeper” by clicking on a link in the graph and explore the trajectories of the workers’ transactions across the months of July to December. If you want to go further into the data, you can register for an orientation seminar in early May, after which you will have direct access to the raw data set.

Our hope is that you will find some way to interact with the data. You may find the stories of the workers compelling—maybe you will find someone your age and level of work experience and see what they are earning. Or, if you dig deeper, you will see some patterns in the data that you find interesting. You can do this on the portal, and you can share what you have found with your colleagues and friends by using the camera button above each profile or graph to take a picture and share it on social media or in a presentation (be sure to credit

As you do this, be sure to remember a few things. There are more than 600 stories here—no one can dismiss these as anecdotes. If anyone questions what you show them as an anecdote, ask them to go to the site to find a story that they find compelling. In addition, the stories are composed out of a lot of individual pieces of information, collected weekly over a long period of time. This kind of information is reliable because it can be checked against itself—is the food expenditure in one week unusually high or is it normal for that person? We can check. And you can check, by asking for access to the raw data.

This is an open invitation to interact with data on the economic lives of garment workers in Bangladesh. We want the Garment Worker Diaries to be part of the on-going conversation that seeks to change the global apparel supply-chain. The Diaries can play a number of different roles: changes in union-management agreements at the factory level based on wage and hours data the Diaries have collected; changes in factory audit practices and factory-brand agreements in the face of data showing excess working hours; changes in government policies on minimum wages, rent control, and/or education policy in the face of data on workers’ expenditures; changes in where consumers decide to shop based on the profiles you read (in the near future you will be able to link worker profiles to brands where the data are available). All these are possible; we look forward to working with you as we continue to collect data throughout this year and beyond.