welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work Podcast.
I'm Isabel Piquer at the ILO in Geneva.
Today we're going to talk about how digital platforms
can become a possible pathway to decent work for young refugees.
Our guests today are Andreas Hackl,
lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh
and author of the ILO report,
"Towards Decent Work For Young Refugees and Host Communities
in the Platform Economy in Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt"
and Drew Gardiner, Youth Employment Specialist at the ILO.
According to your report, Andreas,
digital gig work can play a particular role
for income generation among refugees
as they often struggle to enter local labor markets.
Refugees may look at prominent digital platforms
such as Upwork
and the hope that they can provide livelihood opportunities
in the absence of local alternatives,
but it's the gig economy, a real possibility for refugees
given the technical difficulties and other obvious obstacles
they have to face in their everyday life?
-Yes, so it is a real possibility for sure.
Also, given the rapid growth of the platform economy around the world,
many people living in economies
and countries that have weak local labor markets
with fewer opportunities.
Of course, now look at this emerging digital platform economy
as a sort of quick-fix solution.
Before we talk about this,
we need to differentiate as well between different kinds of work
on digital platforms.
You have gig work on location-based on-demand platforms
like in delivery, taxi services, or on-demand domestic work services.
These have sometimes lower skill requirements,
but they often require security checks, driving licenses.
They might be concentrated in a few urban areas
and they also require three mobility,
in short, accessing such work requires privileges and documentation
that many refugees and especially those living in camps
or under restrictive refugee regimes may not have.
This shows that the struggle to make the digital economy work for refugees
requires a simultaneous struggle for more rights
and justice among refugees more generally.
In theory, then the other kind of work
desk-based work on web-based digital labor platforms, such as Upwork,
which you already mentioned, looks more promising.
Here tasks and jobs can be done from anywhere in theory,
as long as a person has a computer, a smartphone, and internet connection.
Fulfilling these basic requirements is often more difficult than it may seem.
Places where many refugees live,
be it camps, settlements, or marginalized urban areas,
often have substandard internet connection.
Even if connectivity and hardware would be available,
there are at least two other factors that limits refugees' access
to these desk-based online work forms.
One of these is that platforms often don't accept their ID cards
or their identification such as refugee or alien IDs
and many refugees are also excluded from basic financial services,
such as bank accounts,
which can prevent them actually to make or receive any payments online.
One exception maybe is where mobile money,
which is very strong in places like Kenya is available.
These things can be overcome partly.
So just lastly, I guess, to sum up the point,
even if these obstacles are overcome,
the question of whether the digital economy's inclusive potential
can become a real opportunity for refugees
often also depends on the individual background
and the kind of work they do.
Many fields of platform work
or online freelancing are highly competitive
and require strong skill sets,
both in the field of work and English language skills,
thinking about web design, computer programming,
language translation, as examples,
and even basic digital literacy can be a challenge.
These kinds of skill gaps mean that many initiatives or programs
that want to help refugees make a livelihood online
must focus on low-skilled work that is badly paid
and here basic data entry services
or image annotations are very common so-called real opportunities.
Such annotations are repetitive labeling exercises,
human labor that trains artificial intelligence to identify,
for example, what is a pedestrian in a photograph
or driverless cars
or what products need restocking in automated supermarket shelves?
While all these forms of work have benefited many refugees,
they are rarely decent jobs.
Overall, almost all of platform work is classified as self-employment,
which is a major problem from a workers' rights perspective.
-Lots of obstacle here,
then as you just point out, since the gig economy is mainly informal,
can this reinforce the precarity of the refugees?
What do you think, Drew?
-Yes, it can very much so,
but it's a complicated question.
Allow me maybe just to give a little bit of background.
For young people, in particular,
this would extend to young refugees as well, definitely,
almost all jobs and particularly in Africa or in the informal economy.
95% of young people who are working
are working in the informal economy in Africa.
The informal economy, in its nature,
is not necessarily inherent to decent work deficits,
but in reality, it very much is.
It's work which is lower paid.
It's work which is less safe
it's work which given that these people often don't have formal work contracts,
that they don't have the benefits which go along with the job.
Definitely, it can reinforce their precarity,
but for refugees, in particular, it's really a double-edged sword
and we detail this more specifically in the report.
Since refugees and particularly in the gig economy
are working in somewhat of a gray zone.
Allow me to explain that a bit.
Refugees often can't get work permits.
Either they're not allowed to get them
or they face a lot of difficulties getting them
because they don't have proper ID.
There's many occupations, which refugees also cannot work in.
The gig economy actually given its online work,
it allows them to leapfrog or step over a lot of the barriers,
which would prevent them from working in the first place.
Although this work will, in a lot of cases, remain informal,
the gig economy does open up the opportunity
to get around those regulations,
not advocating to get around them
but the fact that it does provide extra opportunities
is somewhat of a good thing.
The other element of it is that when it reinforces precarity
is because informal jobs
the ILO has proved that in a lot of different studies
informal jobs stay informal.
Informal jobs are not a gateway actually to formality.
In many cases actually and refugees, in particular,
they'll stay in the informal economy.
They won't transfer to the formal economy.
That's really problematic
because so many of the jobs are in the informal economy
in the first place.
The ILO, in 2014,
we passed a recommendation at our International Labor Conference,
its recommendation 204,
which is promoting the transition to the formal economy.
Now it's not to say that all people need to transit to the formal economy,
but it provides a pathway for governments, workers,
and employer organizations to work together,
to create regulation and policy at the national level
to allow for that transition.
There are lots of opportunities, but lots of obstacles.
Are we putting too much hope in this model
to avoid solving other problems that refugees face?
Are we talking too much about the gig economy for refugees?
-Hope can be an important motivating force
but the danger is that it can also be illusory.
I think much of the hope being invested in the digital economy
as a solution for job creation
and income generation in the future is justified,
but only with a big but.
Most important is the barriers to digital access are addressed
and working conditions on digital labor platforms are improved.
As long as different key actors work together
to address the many problems that we, for example, outline in our report,
perhaps the high hopes are justified.
Talking about these key actors,
I include international organizations such as the ILO,
but also governments and the platforms themselves.
The digital economy undoubtedly has a strong potential for income generation
in places that lack local jobs and strong local labor markets.
It also offers an alternative
in places where refugees are excluded from many sectors
and professions of the economy.
Many other problems need to be solved,
I would say perhaps before
or at least at the same time as the platform economy
can become the workable model for livelihoods provision
and decent work among refugees and other crisis-affected populations.
Most important, I think, is that
refugees should not be pushed into the platform economy
just because there are high hopes
without at the same time working towards improved working conditions,
and stronger support mechanisms
that can really ensure that work is possibility, hope,
and optimism actually translates into real outcomes
that are defendable
and representative of the kind of goals
that are pursued by actors such as the ILO.
-The answer to your question, Isabelle, is no.
I would say we're not putting too much hope in this model
and avoiding us to solve other problems.
The reality is that there is so many challenges in this area
that they need to be tackled simultaneously and in parallel.
I think when we talk more specifically about young refugees,
there is a lot of regulation and a lot of policy discussion happening
to transition us to more decent working conditions in the gig economy.
We should actually take advantage of those developments and those situations
to also be able to apply them to populations,
and specifically marginalized populations
that might not have access to those types of regulations
in the first place.
Let's actually ride the wave of regulation and policy discussions for gig economy
to make it more inclusive and more expansive.
So I would say no.
We are seeing now in different countries,
I was reading this morning about Italy, but also in Scandinavian countries.
In California, we tried about policy and law being created
specifically for gig economy workers
to allow them to have a minimum wage,
to have the correct employment status apply to their particular situation,
to allow them to benefit from things like vacation and sick leave,
and pensions and health insurance that currently they don't have access to.
We need to apply that to refugees as well,
and we need to at the same time,
think about longer-term solutions for the refugee problems as well,
the refugee challenges as well.
This also implies decent work principles to be applied to refugees.
It's an extremely marginalized population,
and currently, we don't have longer-term solutions for the refugee challenges,
outside of some good practice out there from various countries.
Decent work and access to decent work is a big factor in that needs to be taken,
I think more seriously by both development and humanitarian actors, Isabelle.
-There are right now concrete initiatives in some refugees camp
to try to facilitate refugees' access to the digital economy,
they are very interesting.
Can you tell us more, Drew?
Maybe I'll give you two examples, Isabelle.
The first one and actually, the report is part of this program,
which is called prospects,
which is a project of the ILO and other partners
to improve prospects for forcibly displaced persons
and host communities.
It's a $500 million investment from the government of Netherlands
and involves the International Finance Corporation's asset, the ILO,
UNHCR, which is the UN refugee agency,
the World Bank, and UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund.
We're trying to play our role to provide new and creative solutions
to give young refugees access to the gig economy.
One is something that we call My First Digital Job Program.
This is a program for young refugees and it's going to do three things.
One is to provide incentives for digital labor operators
to hire refugees in decent work conditions.
The second one is a placement program.
It's about sourcing actually opportunities
and negotiating with platform operators.
The third one is to give them on-the-job training and skills
to allow them to improve their skills to access these platforms.
The second example I wanted to mention is
what the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth is doing
to give access to young refugees on platforms.
The Global Initiative is the UN platform
to achieve decent work under the 2030 development agenda
and we're working with over 90 partners.
I just wanted to mention one
which we also refer to in the report which is called Humans in the Loop.
Humans in the Loop is an intermediary organization
which is helping young people and young refugees source work on the web.
What they're doing is they're providing a values-based type of platform
to allow young refugees to do microtask work.
This is artificial intelligence.
Andreas mentioned it before doing things like annotation,
doing things like photo sourcing,
doing things also like translation on the web.
These intermediate-type organizations are playing a buffer
between the bigger platforms and the workers themselves
to provide them with more decent work opportunities.
We think this is a good and emerging example
which should be followed more regularly.
-These are great initiatives
and I think that the idea is to provide a framework
so these refugees can access decent jobs.
Andreas, in your report, you mention some recommendations
to make sure that these jobs of the gig economy
become decent jobs, right?
of course, I encourage everyone to take a closer look at these recommendations
but one of the things that is important to say is that
in terms of future interventions and what is needed,
you could almost say there are two transitions
that we need to support or facilitate.
The first is the more foundational one that is about digital access
to actually support refugees in gaining access to platforms
and getting the right skills and digital literacy
and the right environment to actually join and access income opportunities online.
The second and that's the one that also relates much more directly
to the question of decent jobs
is how do you then transform what is still largely indecent working conditions
that are often precarious.
How do you transform these into more decent jobs?
I think this second transition there is still a lot to do.
One of the main problems that aid-funded programs
or specific interventions targeting refugees are facing
and this includes organizations such as Humans in the Loop
but also, for example, the World Food Program's EMPACT Program
which is one of the larger UN-run digital livelihoods programs.
One thing I hear from these initiatives is that
they cannot be independent from the wider logic of the market.
Even though as Drew said they provide some kind of buffer
and an intermediary between workers and the clients that are buying the work,
they really struggle to change the underlying conditions
that define work in the platform economy as often low paid and indecent.
We need to succeed in the wider struggle for decent work and fair work
in the platform economy at large.
On the supply side of workers, of course, there is a need to improve skills,
invest more into skills, find solutions that offer social protections,
and support refugees and youths in ways that reduce the risk
and precarity on digital labor platforms.
On the supply side,
I think and this relates a bit to what Drew said on the incentives
that need to be provided for employers and for clients
to actually outsource and buy work from refugee communities.
On the supply side, thinking about both the platforms
and the clients that buy services,
there is a need to create more pressure towards fair pricing and fair conditions.
One step towards this would be
some kind of decent work reference framework
supported by the ILO and other key actors
that defines minimum criteria and benchmarks
for decent working conditions and fair trade in the digital economy
but also with a specific focus on vulnerable populations
such as refugees
or people in need of humanitarian assistance
in crisis-affected countries, for example.
Important global organizations such as The Fairwork Foundation
are already doing this
by successfully creating a reference framework
for platforms to be rated as fair or unfair.
It is just that there's an additional need that is highlighted by our report
to think through what does this mean
for refugees and other crisis-affected populations
who have very particular vulnerabilities
and cannot necessarily be compared with the gig labor force at large.
One of the main problems
digital livelihood programs are facing in practice is that
they can provide skills trainings and support or mentoring,
but they're largely powerless
in transforming the indecent working conditions and low prices
that characterize outsourcing work and platform economy.
I think this is where larger global-coordinated investments are needed
to provide such a reference framework.
-Lots of work ahead.
Thank you very much, Andreas.
Thank you both for your time.
Our guests today were Andreas Hackl, author of the ILO report,
Towards Decent Work For Young Refugees and Host Communities
in the Platform Economy in Africa,
and Drew Gardiner, Youth Employment Specialist at the ILO.
Please join us again soon
for another edition of the ILO Future of Work Podcast.