Introducing New Questions for Workers

by Guy Stuart
2 months ago

The weekly questions MFO and SANEM ask garment workers in Bangladesh cover a range of topics: work hours, salary, unemployment, overtime, bonuses, financial transactions (transfers, gifts, loans, savings, withdrawals, shop credit), digital financial services, rent, illness and injury, food security, general health, COVID-19 vaccinations, and (because surveys are conducted over the phone) whether or not respondents are answering the enumerators’ questions from their homes or from somewhere else, like their village. In addition, each weekly surveys usually includes special questions which we’ve either submitted ourselves or on behalf of other stakeholders. These questions are also broad in scope and range from whether or not a worker understands what a budget is, to their favorite holiday foods, to whether or not they want their children to grow up to become garment workers.

With 1,300 respondents to be interviewed each week by a few dozen enumerators, and only so much time and cell phone data to go around, each new question we add to the survey is carefully worded and carefully placed within the overall weekly schedule. Sometimes, we’ve got to move fast to get workers’ responses to live developments, such as when strict lockdowns were enforced this past summer. This might mean we have to bump a question or two we thought we might get to ask. But when possible, we take every opportunity to plant questions ahead of time which, we hope, will one day be revealing of salient trends.

New Questions Overview

Having provided that overview, we’d like to introduce some new questions we’re going to be adding to the Garment Worker Diaries surveys in Bangladesh. The questions cover four topics:

  • savings

  • spending

  • workers’ support networks, and

  • food security

Most of the questions will be posed weekly, some monthly or quarterly, and one important question will be asked just once.

Mixed in with the questions covered by the first three topics will be questions that focus on decision-making and control: who controls savings that a worker has accumulated; who takes part in spending decisions; and who controls remittances, both spent and received. In the case of remittances, these control-oriented questions will be getting added alongside decision-making questions we are already asking. These decision and control questions are designed to build up a picture over time of each worker’s economic agency within the household, and the questions will determine whether a worker’s agency varies over time or across transaction types (spending, remittances, intra-household transfers, savings). Given the large sample of women in the Garment Worker Diaries project in Bangladesh, we will gain a nuanced picture of women’s economic agency and empowerment.

Feel free to stop reading here, knowing that you will see the results from these new questions in a few weeks’ time. But if you want to learn more detail, please read on…

New Questions Details


The questions related to savings are divided into three types. First, there are questions on workers’ savings aspirations. These questions ask workers directly if they have savings goals or not, and will be asked quarterly. We do not expect the answers to accurately reflect workers’ behavior; rather, the questions are designed to capture whether workers aspire to save at all and if so, for what purpose. In addition to asking about their aspirations, we will gauge the extent to which they have control over the money they have set aside, if any.

The second set of savings-related questions ask workers about their actual savings behavior and focus on how much money they have remaining at the end of each month. Workers get paid around the 8th of the month, so asking them about any remaining money at the end of the month captures how much they have left before they get their next salary payment. We will also ask whether the amount left over is more or less than the previous month to track whether workers are accumulating savings or not. Finally, we will try to determine whether workers have any plans to use the money they have left and for what purpose. As with the aspirational questions, we will ask the worker about their control of the money.

Finally, we will also be asking questions regarding workers’ spending in order to capture the extent to which workers use their savings to cover large expenditures. Through this approach we can capture information about how workers actually use their savings as opposed to other sources of funds, such as cash on hand—this gives us the most concrete sense of how workers use their savings. We will ask the spending questions weekly over a long period of time so we can build up a picture of how workers use their savings to cover large expenditures.

Spending and the Use of Savings

When the Garment Worker Diaries methodology shifted from in-person to phone interviews in April 2020 (due to COVID-19 safety precautions) we decided to drop questions on spending because we thought it would be too difficult for workers to track such data. Before April 2020, workers were keeping their data in a notebook and sharing it with the enumerators who visited them each week. After April 2020, enumerators could not visit the workers in person and check their notebooks, so we felt we could not rely on the workers to keep a notebook over a long period of time without an in-person visit from an enumerator.

To re-capture these data on spending without in-person visits and notebook record-keeping, we will ask workers questions about the largest, non-rent expenditure each week. Based on our experience, it is very likely that workers will be able to remember the largest weekly expenditure. We will exclude rent from this question, as we know this is paid on a monthly basis by many (but not all) workers, and we are already capturing data on rent payments.

In addition to asking what the large expenditure was and for how much, we will also ask workers about the source of money used to pay for it. This is where we can capture information on the use of savings (see above). In addition, we learn whether, for example, a worker borrows money to pay for something while also keeping savings for some other purpose—a true test of whether someone is really saving for a purpose. We will also be asking the workers who made the large spending decision.

Worker’s Support Network

The weekly survey currently includes questions about intra-household transfers to and from the respondent in addition to transfers to and from people outside the household. In the case of transfers to/from people outside the household, the survey asks for a description of the sender/receiver. For both internal and external transfers the survey also asks who decides what to do with the money transferred. Given that these existing set of questions already gather a lot of information about the flow of money and who controls how it is spent, we will only be adding two sets of new questions focused on who makes the decision to transfer money out of the household and who requests transfers into the household.

Food Security

Food security questions are one of the cornerstones of our weekly surveys as they help measure workers’ economic resilience, a factor which is especially important during a pandemic. The questions enquire about the food security for not only the respondent but also the head of household and the workers’ children, if applicable. To get an even better idea of how workers define their own food security, we will be adding a question to the weekly survey that gives us a better idea of which foods people “give up” when they are food insecure. We will do this by first compiling a list of food items that workers commonly buy and consume. This will be done by asking a one-off question in an upcoming survey. In the weeks following we will then ask workers who have reported experiencing food insecurity which, if any, of these food items they gave up.

Note: Banner photo courtesy of a garment worker in Bangladesh