Migration Summit 2023: gauging challenges and prospects in hiring refugees for freelance work

Online labour platform representatives, researchers and digital skills training providers convened at the Migration Summit 2023 to exchange views, approaches and lived experiences around the challenges and opportunities in hiring refugees in freelance work.

News | 21 April 2023
Geneva SWITZERLAND, (ILO News) – On April 12, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), jointly represented at a panel discussion on “Refugees and freelance work” at the Migration Summit 2023, a month-long event organized by the MIT Refugee Action Lab, Na’amal, and the Karam Foundation.

The Summit, which works to build bridges among diverse communities of displaced learners, non-profit and non-governmental organizations, social enterprises, foundations, philanthropists, researchers, policymakers and employers, touched on the main challenges and opportunities facing refugee and migrant communities in the current world of work.

This year’s Summit, in its second edition, focused on co-creating pathways to learning and pursuing dignified livelihoods. The ILO and UNHCR, shared their learnings derived from the Government of the Netherlands supported PROSPECTS Opportunity Fund project - Promotion, inclusion and protection of refugees and host communities in the gig economy.

Moderated by Lorraine Charles, co-founder and Executive Director at Na’amal, the panel discussion centred on recurrent legal and regulatory challenges and practical opportunities that private enterprises face when hiring workers who have been forced to flee their place of origin. In her introductory remarks, she set the scene stressing that 70 per cent of an estimated 21.3 million refugees worldwide currently face legal limitations to accessing formal forms of employment.

In addition to bureaucratic hurdles, refugees must also often navigate a sense of social resistance in hosting countries, especially in contexts of economic duress or politically-driven crises. An overall sentiment of non-inclusion of refugees and migrants may stem from a lack of political will, or a risk-averse take on policymaking that responds to the complexities of the inclusion of forcibly displaced persons, including refugees, in formal, decent employment. As for employers, Charles explained, many may also feel hesitant to employ refugees, as doing so is perceived as complicated, time-consuming and costly, from a legal point of view.

Access to information as a core driver of inclusion and decent work for refugees

Shedding additional light on the refugee perspective was Zulum Avila, ILO Specialist on Employment Strategies in the Digital Economy, who highlighted the issues of limited access to connectivity and information and communications technologies (ICT) infrastructure, as well as to financial services. This is in addition to limited digital skills among refugees vis-à-vis the rapidly evolving demands of the digital labour market, including for freelance work.

Echoing these challenges was Michelle Hassan, Principal Consultant leading work on refugee affairs at BFA Global and responsible for the Jobtech Alliance research initiative in Uganda. She further stressed the importance of acknowledging the size of the information gap for refugees looking to tap into digitally enabled opportunities. Many remain largely unaware of the pathways and benefits of web-based and digital labour platform work, including work in the internet economy available locally.

A landscape marked by innovation and multi-stakeholder partnerships

The discussion also served to showcase key initiatives and lived experiences in helping refugees secure decent work in the digital economy.

Launched in 2021, Concat  is a Lebanon-based web development agency connecting web developers from traditionally underserved segments of the population, such as women and refugees, with global technology companies. Laura Jardine shared that working with women and refugees as consultants has enabled Concat to better position their expertise to the needs of the global market. Concat has also helped them in securing uninterruptible power supply in their houses, whenever needed.

“We have 60 clients from 12 different countries, and we are creating successful proof of concept with CONCAT to challenge other corporations to hire more diversely in their tech teams,” Jardine said. She added that since “technology, in general, is really teaching people how to think”, a call for a change in mindsets is a common thread in many discussions taking place about, and within, the digital economy.

In turn, Khawar Malik, founder of SOMOS, a free to join community for paid and volunteer online language teachers supporting migrant and refugee workers, touched on the employer perspective. Ensuring there is a tailored and well-known hiring process for employers to follow and comfortably navigate, is vital. Understanding the different laws applying at national and local level to ensure that companies can comply with the necessary legal protection to their workers, including refugees, is a priority, he explained. As for the need for a life-cycle approach to digital upskilling, “whether people come for one or two years or for their entire lives, they should always be up-skilling, and it is up to businesses to provide these opportunities,” Malik explained.

Speaking on investing in a diverse workforce was Jessica Mony, who leads the work on social impact and partnerships at Appen, a global Artificial Intelligence (AI)-assisted data annotation platform. Diversity stands to improve how companies run and even improve business models, Mony said, highlighting that, in the case of Appen, working with AI model development calls for a large number of people, not least since the strength of Appen’s model is the diversity of people working to mitigate bias in machine learning models. To further foster an inclusive environment, Appen partners with other organizations to diversify recruitment practices and expand their reach to underserved communities, including refugees.

Jessica Mony notes, however, that given the nature of the work she does, the profiles Appen often looks for are those with at least a basic level of English and, in some case, mastery of the English language altogether, which may be a skill that refugees by and large may not all have yet. She added that AI and the large language models that creates AI represents mainly the English-speaking world, and she hopes this will change moving forward. This is why diversity – working with people speaking different languages, particularly refugees – is both a necessity and an opportunity for the next steps in AI.

The discussion also touched on the importance of brokering partnerships between development agencies, training providers and online platforms to help addressing challenges for refugees and the evolving world of digital work. Online platforms can work with organizations like Na’amal dedicated to developing in-demand soft skills such as communication in English and digital literacy, while the ILO and UNHCR through the PROSPECTS programme offer connected facilities, promote networks of exchange and practices and offer policy guidance and norms-setting support amidst a growing world of digital work. “It is not all on the shoulders of the companies to think that they have to do this all by themselves”, says John Warnes, Deputy Head of the Innovation Service at UNHCR.

“The digital transformation has revolutionized the world of work and work as we know it today,” Zulum Avila said, pointing to how the growing digital economy is driving workers to develop new skills, from basic literacy and online etiquette to advanced software development depending on the sector, and, some of them, are harder to hone without additional support, especially among refugees. Indeed, digital soft skills, such as consistency and creativity, are as important as core skills specific to each sector. Transforming creativity into productivity requires a methodology, consistency and the discipline to work autonomously. These are crucial, yet challenging and slow-to-develop skills that may require a lot training and coaching, Avila discussed, adding that critical soft skills are hard to develop because it goes hand in hand with switching mindsets and attitudes, for which there is no ready-made or one-off solution.

With a digital transformation in flux, an enabling regulatory environment and conducive sector practices for decent work are critical

“There is a wealth of potential in bringing refuges to employment, and what most of the statistics show is that there is deep underemployment of refugees as well as lack of employment,” John Warnes said, underscoring how UNHCR and its partners are working together to bring out this potential and show that refugees can indeed meet sector demands as well as rise to the standards of their own aspirations. While certain digital labour platforms are pursuing good practices to empower refugees, the effort is not ubiquitous, to which calls for a broader enabling legal environment to come to surface, especially in response to the lack of incentives in place that push many refugees into informal, precarious work instead.

Under the PROSPECTS programme through the Opportunity Fund project for the Promotion, inclusion and protection of refugees and host communities in the gig economy, the ILO and UNHCR are working on promoting a digital transformation that is inclusive and productive for everyone, in particular those traditionally unserved groups such as refugees and their host communities, who often face the same challenges of limited access to connectivity infrastructure, digital skills gaps, restricted access to financial services and exposure to digital risk.
“The ILO is advocating and supporting governments to establish the necessary policy and regulatory frameworks and incentives to make of digital work decent,” Zulum Avila said, also pointing out that there are two sides of the coin: labour supply and labour demand.”

ILO research on online labour platforms reveal that new types of work pose new kinds of challenges for all involved. The first aspect proving challenging is the classification of workers, since it is not always clear in national legislation if digital labour platform workers are self-employed or not. In the case of web-based platforms, the platform, the clients and the workers may be in different jurisdictions, which makes the application of local labour laws all the more challenging. This helps explain the low levels of social protection coverage and the high informality rates present among these occupations. There are also geographical inequalities regarding payment rates by global platforms.

Some platforms, like Appen, says Jessica Mony, have their own policies on defining their pay rates, which may include using the local minimum wage as a reference and consider the length of time and complexity of the tasks performed. As for SOMOS, who promote inclusivity in their hiring practices is a good practice, but not necessarily an institutionalized and, therefore not a widespread one. A robust legal framework that establishes minimum standards for such practices is therefore timely.

To this end, the ILO is supporting governments, social partners and refugee and hosting communities themselves to create an enabling environment and modernize the international and legal frameworks that allow for fair wages, social protection, and equal opportunity in platform work. Progress is being observed in this regard, with the International Labour Conference on decent work in the platform economy, in 2025, to be devoted to start a discussion on setting a specific international labour standard.

Closing the exchange was Lorraine Charles, who stressed that regulatory and legal updates and policy making may lag behind everyday sector transformations, which is why exchanging ideas and promoting a serious discussion in events like today’s is especially important to identify the pathways to inclusivity for refugees in their hosting countries and in a rapidly evolving world of digitally enabled work.