What is the role of digital microwork in providing employment opportunities for forcibly displaced people? In this guest blog post, Giselle Gonzales reflects on her research to explore this question.
The world now faces the highest number of forcibly displaced people (FDPs hereafter) ever recorded. A lack of economic opportunity has been identified as a root cause for the perpetuation of violence and displacement within the larger system of conflict. Yet one powerful interception point exists within this vicious cycle; job creation. When it comes to finding multi-stakeholder solutions to address the world’s displacement crisis, beyond humanitarian relief alone, it is imperative to reframe the popular narrative of FDPs being “helpless, passive victims,” only considered in light of their vulnerabilities. Refugee and other displaced populations possess a wealth of often-overlooked skills, talents, and aspirations that can be harnessed to contribute socially and economically to their host communities, while also improving their own futures. Providing employment opportunities is a powerful conduit to this end.
At the same time, technological advances have put AI, machine learning, and digitization at the forefront of global innovation. Human judgment, however, remains essential to fill the gap of what technology cannot yet fully-automate. The private sector has millions of datasets to be sorted and trained, and images to be annotated – yet, the cost for companies to do so entirely in-house is high. So, a growing number choose to outsource. Outsourcing allows large companies to process, categorize, and improve vast amounts of data, while freeing their full-time engineers to focus on the greater advancement of projects without wasting time and effort on menial tasks. Small-scale enterprises can also benefit from low operating costs for numerous computational tasks, because they don’t need to train, manage, or invest in additional infrastructure for this workforce.
An introduction to microwork
Enter digital microwork (microwork hereafter): an emerging employment model that breaks down larger digital projects into small, entry-level tasks that can be outsourced to a global, temporary workforce (at a fraction of the cost for companies). All that is required for workers to access microwork is an internet connection and an electronic device, making it one of the most accessible digital employment opportunities, even for those with low digital literacy. As a relatively new and often-invisible subset of the larger gig economy, the microwork ecosystem is complex and only loosely defined. Though the term remains absent from dictionaries it is legitimate income-generating work, available on freelancing platforms and microwork-specific platforms (e.g. Amazon Mechanical Turk, Samasource, Cloud Factory, Figure Eight, etc.). An extensive review of existing literature and the digital marketplace revealed the following defining attributes of microwork:
- Microwork has very low barriers to entry. All that is required is a phone or computer, internet access and the ability to receive payment (either processed digitally or cashed out in the local currency directly from an employer or third party, such as an NGO).
- Microwork is geographically independent, as all work is assigned and completed online.
- Microwork is low maintenance, not requiring extensive skill training, contracts, or project follow-up once completed.
- Microwork has a low job/task duration, ranging from seconds to usually no more than five minutes to complete, from which workers are marginally compensated at usually less than $0.10 (USD) per task.
- With microwork, one worker may complete hundreds to thousands of different microtasks in a given week, and/or complete an identical task many times for the same employer.
Leilah Janah, the founder of the microwork platform, Samasource, named image tagging, address verification, content moderation, video transcription, and record digitization as examples of microwork tasks due to their adherence to those aforementioned traits. A traditionally outsourced job like telemarketing, however, would not be classified as microwork because it requires a high level of language, communication, and computer skills, training, and usually geographic requirements and specified work hours—all of which classify it as a “high- touch” job with a higher barrier to entry than microwork.
Thus, if job creation within the gig economy were a ladder, microwork would essentially be the bottom rung. It by no means represents a final solution, but rather offers an immediate entry-point to income-generation where workers can build skills and confidence to advance to better-paid, higher-skilled—and arguably more dignified work—through freelancing, entering the formal labour market (if/when accessible), or pursuing entrepreneurship. While not an ideal starting point for all, it is particularly attractive for those who are geographically or legally restricted from local work (e.g. displaced populations, women who cannot work outside the home, or disabled people).
Bringing microwork to displaced populations
Strict employment restrictions on FDPs make it highly challenging to earn autonomous, sustainable livelihoods through local work, yet microwork provides a notable opportunity for this population to access employment when no others exist. A number of enterprising businesses and NGOs have recently started capitalizing on the market’s demand for microworkers by launching programmes that bring those opportunities to FDPs. That, however, is easier said than done. Securing sustainable and dignified work online requires an increasingly higher level of soft and hard digital skills to compete in the global marketplace. And microwork alone—if not paired with worker training or communal support structures to promote skill/career progression—runs the risk of being undignified and exploitative. A recent study of microworkers in Asia and Africa, for example, showed that the worst of microwork’s algorithmic control mechanisms can result in, “low pay, social isolation, working unsocial and irregular hours, overwork, sleep deprivation and exhaustion.” Despite its harshest criticism though, researchers and practitioners alike recognize that context is essential when judging the microwork model and offsetting its disadvantages.
That’s where NGO-run programmes such as Preemptive Love Coalition’s WorkWell (in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan) and Mercy Corps’ Gaza Sky Geeks (in Palestine’s Gaza Strip) can make a significant difference. Though the geo-political situations each programme operates within are highly unique, both have found ways to creatively utilize microwork for job creation among similar populations of displaced and/or marginalized communities.
Preemptive Love’s WorkWell programme, serves a mix of Syrian refugees, Iraqi IDPs and local youth who are—for the most part—unfamiliar with digital work and must introduce every cohort with basic IT and digital literacy training. Here WorkWell utilizes microwork as an intentional, focused part of its programming where job creation through microwork presents an optional programmatic end if workers choose to not progress into freelancing. Alternatively, Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG hereafter) exclusively serves local Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip—many of whom are college educated and enter GSG with strong digital literacy/knowledge. Because of this, microwork is not considered an end-goal and it’s used more “peripherally” as part of their Freelancing Academy to briefly introduce freelancing ideas/platforms to workers before quickly progressing them into higher-skilled work. Some of GSG’s freelancers may skip it altogether.
The major challenges of microwork
The challenges of bringing microwork to FDPs are similar to those previously documented with bringing other opportunities in the larger gig economy to this population. The principal challenges of bringing microwork to FDPs being: (1) geo-restrictions that black-list anyone in certain countries from accessing numerous freelancing/microwork platforms, (2) a lack of payment solutions to these blacklisted countries or “risky” populations, such as refugees, that would enable direct payment for completed work, and (3) the danger of unethical or exploitative practices for a relatively unprotected workforce.
Take, for example, the story of Noora, a 19-year old Syrian refugee living in Iraq who was interviewed during this research. Noora graduated from high school in 2017 but has not been able to return to Syria so she enrolled in Preemptive Love Coalition’s WorkWell programme to start earning an immediate income through microwork. The work she completes is basic and the pay low, yet with a supporting team of mentors and fellow refugee and local workers, Noora is gaining confidence, building a local and global network, and learning new digital skills that will help her progress into more advanced, higher-paying digital work in the future.
Despite WorkWell’s programmatic help, however, Noora is confronted with the challenge that most online platforms outsourcing digital work are blacklisted in Iraq. Without WorkWell acting as the “bridge” to source work, those opportunities would be otherwise inaccessible to Noora or any other worker in Iraq. Also, Noora does not have a bank account and no major payment solution providers (such as PayPal) operate in such a fragile environment. Therefore, cash is king and as the work Noora completes is all digital, she relies on WorkWell to act as a “middleman” to receive payments from international platforms or businesses for the work she completes. This works, but it is by no means scalable and puts tremendous strain on the administrative capacities of the programme. Finally, without WorkWell’s unique facilitation there are few to no regulations safeguarding digital working conditions for Noora and others. This leaves them at risk of exploitation from the companies/platforms directly outsourcing microwork. The same narrative rings true for GSG.
Existing practices to combat microwork’s challenges for FDPs
While such major challenges exist, they have also become proving grounds for unique solutions. For example, geo-restrictions are often placed on entire countries or populations by the private sector to mitigate risks. After all, a company like Amazon understandably doesn’t want to outsource work to vulnerable populations for fear they might unintentionally hire and fund someone connected to extremist or terrorist groups. In response, however, vetting and fostering a far more intimate knowledge of workers has become a major part of combatting the fear at the heart of these restrictions. By pre-emptively vetting (via skill, vulnerability, and background assessments), training, and managing a meticulous database of workers, programmes like WorkWell and GSG are better able to both lower the risks and challenges of outsourcing their workforce and provide a more effective pipeline to connect workers with employers.
Though a massive gap remains in the Middle Eastern market for payment solutions, one promising disrupter in this space is AlgoPay, a brand-new payment solution that launched in June of 2019, designed specifically for unbanked populations in the Middle East. The company recently partnered with UpWork and are reportedly building their partner network to become a major in the region to address the challenge of payment solutions. Also noteworthy is Estonia’s E-Residency; a government-issued digital identity that allows entrepreneurs, freelancers, and digital nomads around the world to register a global EU company, fully online (ongoing until 31/12/2025). This e-Residency is reportedly accessible to all in MENA region and has the potential to give workers in fragile environments access by having their digital and economic footprint “digitally rooted” in an EU-country. While both are promising, the search for better payment solutions continues and the next 5-10 years may bring even more innovative solutions as awareness of digital work increases among vulnerable populations and entrepreneurs and governments are incentivized to find solutions. Until these solutions can become widely adopted though, workers continue to find creative workarounds for receiving payments. It was reported that in the Gaza Strip, for example, some independent workers (separate from GSG) have found a way to receive payments for directly sourced work through fictitious Airbnb listings—one of the only platforms allowing digital payments in the region because of their partnership with the international payment platform, Payoneer.
Finally, though microwork is most often critiqued as exploitative for breaking down work into minute, seemingly meaningless tasks, platforms and programmes have actually begun operating counter to its definition by grouping microwork tasks into microwork projects for individuals or teams of workers. In both cases with WorkWell and GSG, this was shown to increase the quality of work completed, raise wages, and give workers the sense of being a part of something bigger when they know more about what their work is contributing to and don’t have to work in isolation. These practices have also contributed to high levels of social cohesion in both programmes.
Conclusion and further research
This research revealed microwork to be particularly advantageous for vulnerable populations whose situations place them at an educational, digital skill-level, and situational disadvantage; individuals who would otherwise have no opportunities to engage in the local or global labour markets to earn a dignified, sustainable livelihood. Ultimately, in the face of the worst global displacement crisis in history, microwork is not a panacea for FDPs’ problems, but rather one of many emerging solutions to enable access to autonomous income generation. Most importantly it represents a unique model for co-creation as one of many tools FDPs can utilise to transform their own stories of loss and suffering to ones of dignity and purpose, and as a result, bring their communities one step closer to peace.
Further research across sectors is encouraged to understand the microwork phenomenon in more depth and its implementation among FDPs, but particularly on regulation. Because microwork has operated thus far as a nearly invisible, self-regulated industry—with its workforce the least visible and thus most vulnerable—this ecosystem’s self-setting rules make it easy for workers to be exploited, particularly in anonymous marketplaces. Its lack of regulation also encourages private companies to avoid entire populations (who could often benefit most) until risks can be sufficiently lowered with regulatory “safety nets,” which policy makers can help establish. Therefore, it would be worthwhile to increase awareness among policy makers that there is legitimate, commercially valuable work occurring through microwork, freelancing, and digital entrepreneurship among FDPs and local communities. This awareness is crucial so that digital work can be properly supported and regulated. Microwork programmes and platforms would additionally benefit from understanding the competitive advantage FDP and local workers in the MENA region have over traditional outsourcing communities in order to increase private sector buy-in. For the ecosystem as a whole, further research on microwork exploitation—and how to avoid it—would be valuable as well as the ethical implications for the types of work commissioned to FDPs. Most pressing of all, the longevity of the current microwork model should ultimately be considered. Microwork has thus far tapped into the innovations of machine learning and global digitization, but further advancements may soon make microwork superfluous if it does not continue to evolve (and innovate) to anticipate the market’s needs. Major stakeholders in the ecosystem would be wise to watch for future trends in order to anticipate these changes.
Giselle’s interest in the lives of displaced people began when she travelled Europe’s refugee route as a writer and photographer, documenting the stories of refugees, locals, and volunteers from Greece to Germany during the 2015/16 mass migration. Having worked in 50+ countries as a writer and leader in the travel industry with National Geographic, Disney, and TCS World Travel, Giselle Gonzales is driven to make a tangible impact in the world by working across sectors to solve problems that matter. She holds a Master in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from the University of Edinburgh’s Business School and is motivated to identify and influence how innovative market-driven solutions can be utilised for the benefit of the world’s most marginalised.
Contact Giselle Gonzales at: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Koltai S (2016) Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development. Brookings Institution Press.
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 Janah, L. (2017). Give Work: Reversing Poverty one job at a time. New York: Penguin Random House.
 Wood et al. (2019). Good Gig, Bad Gig: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy. Work, Employment and Society, 33(1), pp.56–75.
 Hunt, A., Samman, E., Mansour-Ille, D. & Max, H. (2018). The gig economy in complex refugee situations. Forced Migration Review, (58), pp.47–49.
 Noora (2019). Interview with Giselle Gonzales about microwork as a WorkWell worker. 16 July, 2019.
 Raad, A. (2019). Interview with Giselle Gonzales about the development of WFP’s EMPACT/Workwell and the impact of microwork. 2 May, 2019.