First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 8
Youth employment

How digital labour platforms can provide decent jobs for young refugees

12 August 2021

Digital labour platforms can transform how young refugees make a living. But the unequal spread of internet connectivity, inequalities in digital skills and the specific obstacles that many refugee population face daily make it difficult to apply for these jobs.

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, Egypt and Drew Gardiner, Youth employment specialist at the ILO, explain how coordinate action is needed to ensure young refugees can access gig economy jobs and that these jobs are decent.  



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

and research,

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.

-I see.

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.