Insights from a seminar at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva
Through an ongoing collaboration with the Migration Branch of the International Labour Organization, I was invited to give a seminar at the ILO headquarters in Geneva. The main goal of the seminar was to share a first outline of the project in order to make its outcomes more relevant for the ILO and key actors in the future of work. This extremely futile and challenging discussion was made possible by the attending experts from different areas of the ILO, including in areas of labour migration, financial inclusion, and research.
In its report Digital Labour Platforms and the Future of Work, the ILO writes that:
“Work on digital labour platforms provides workers the opportunity to work from any place, at any time and take up whatever jobs suits them.
However, there are also some risks from engaging in such work with regard to their status of employment, whether they receive adequate income, social protection and other benefits.”
The authors further ask: what motivates workers to undertake such work? And what are the consequences for the workers?
Digital refugee work: opportunities and obstacles
Taking these questions into the context of forcibly displaced persons complicates the answers somewhat. Indeed, asylum seekers and refugees do not only face special difficulties in accessing formal work in the labour markets of host countries; they are often legally and categorically excluded from it.
Other obstacles have to do with connectivity. Data plans for mobile phones and internet can be costly in some countries and laptops for independent learning are not always available. One of the major obstacles remains the skill set: a meeting with UNHCR in Lebanon showed that a majority of refugees that arrived in Beirut in the early months of the Syrian displacement had never used the internet before and had no English language skills.
In thinking about the role of digital labour for refugees for the future of work, it will be important not to lose touch with these difficult realities and people’s often complex social and economic backgrounds.
In order to work towards this aim, the research project behind refugeework.net has at least three stated research objectives:
- To better understand how the economic lives of refugees in cities are connected, or could be connected, to online work opportunities.
- To learn about existing programmes and platforms that offer digital work opportunities and employment trainings, learn about their approaches, successes, failures, and impact.
- To collaborate and use the research insights to re-think existing regulations and policies that affect refugee work and digital work, and possibly innovate new guiding principles and recommendations.
Insights from the discussion
After a detailed introduction of the project, ILO experts at the seminar offered a number of critical comments and challenging questions.
The online gig economy can be isolating
Some training initiatives emphasise the way digital skills can bring people of different backgrounds together, including refugees and members of the majority in the host country. Yet, the gig economy can be very isolating and thus the question was raised about how these contrasting narratives fit together.
Some programmes on digital livelihoods have specifically targeted women, who would thereby be able to work from home despite competing familial and social obligations. One may then ask, how programmes can be more self-reflexive and critical towards an implicit assumption that for “culturally” reasons, women of conservative or Muslim families may find working from home more suitable.
The origins of gig work?
The online gig economy may be unique in its digital aspects, but what is the historical genealogy of gig work among refugees? If one would write the origin story of gig work even before the internet, where would it lead back to?
Much of the writing on digital skills and work among refugees focuses on freelancing, programming, or crowdwork. Yet, it is important to keep the creative and entrepreneurial dimensions in mind. How are these jobs within or outside of the gig economy, and in what ways is their potential to produce decent work and sustainable development different?
A livelihoods perspective
Livelihoods as a general perspective on refugee economies is important, and the digital dimension should not be analytically separated from other aspects of livelihoods and the “offline” gig economy. This also demands a focus on general workplace fragmentation and other socio-economic issues that link into this. Indeed, as one ILO expert said: “what we really don’t know is how this digital work fits into people’s wider lives, in its specific context.”
How can we see potentially new forms of digital citizenship emerging from the involved of forcibly displaced persons with digital work?
In a similar vein, if this kind of citizenship is based on a precondition of self-reliance, what does such self-reliance mean for socio-economic integration in society?
Intersections with economic worlds
Some participants in the workshop found that one of the most interesting aspects of the project will be to see how digital labour intersects with different economic worlds: with freelance work more generally, or with entrepreneurship; or if we think about those who tailor clothes, but also have an Etsy store online, so to what extent is this still gig work?
Accounting for transitioning
Forced displacement often involves journeys with various stages of movement, temporary stay, and transit. How does digital work for refugees’ function in this context, and how can digital skills trainings account for this movements, which include mobility within and between countries?
Secondly, how can we account for another kind of transitioning: is the gig economy a transitive kind of work? How do people fade in and out of these jobs, and how do they move on into other spheres of economic lives?
Difficulties of entering the online gig economy
Although digital skills are sometimes portrayed as an entry ticket into a world of online freelancing, this labour market is in fact highly competitive and demands a specific skillset. As one ILO research put it: “is there a promise of false hope?”