Refugees in the digital economy: New Implementation agreement signed with International Labour Organization

A team of researchers under the leadership of Andreas Hackl, co-director of the Digital Global Development Cluster, has signed an implementation agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

A team of researchers under the leadership of Andreas Hackl, co-director of the Digital Global Development Cluster, has signed an implementation agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO). The project will run until the end of 2023 and contributes research and expert consultancy services for a joint project between the ILO and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) titled: “Promotion, Inclusion and Protection of Refugees in the Gig Economy: Realizing rights at work and mitigating digital risk.”  This joint project takes place under the PROSPECTS partnership.

With a total volume of USD $126,421, the project has been facilitated through Edinburgh Innovations and involves a collaboration of staff and PhD students at Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science (SSPS), the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and the research organization Samuel Hall. 

The research will conduct a desk-based regulatory, policy and legal analysis on the digital economy with a focus on the gig or digital platform economy, digital risks and labour market inclusion across eight countries: Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan. A research team at Samuel Hall will conduct 40 interviews across 8 countries to complement this desk-based research. In a second phase, the project will conceptualize and coordinate a background paper for advocacy purposes to be discussed in a multi-stakeholder Global Forum in Africa in 2023. 

The digital livelihoods of refugees: between opportunity and risk 

The numbers of refugees and internally displaced people continue to proliferate at unprecedented levels. In 2021, estimates by the UN Refugee Agency, establish that displacement has surpassed 84 million, of whom 31 million were refugees and asylum-seekers. Developing countries host 85 per cent of the world’s refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad, and the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total. As displacement has become increasingly protracted, responses are focusing more on sustainable interventions for refugees and their hosting communities. This new approach proposes policy interventions linking humanitarian support with development goals to increase resilience. Access to decent work is an integral part of sustainable responses strategies for refugees and the host countries. 

At the same time the digitalization of the world of work is fundamentally transforming how refugees can make a livelihood and gain access to jobs. The rapid emergence of gig economy platforms that use digital technologies to intermediate labour on a per-task basis is fast growing.  While the digitally mediated remote work has the potential to become a source of economic livelihood for refugees; it also poses a range of challenges and risks linked to low payment levels, informal work patterns and connectivity barriers. With over 12 million forcibly displaced and stateless people across the eight PROSPECTS countries, the scope of potential of digital livelihoods to bring positive change to peoples’ lives is vast. Seizing this potential requires adapting policy frameworks to promote decent work and creating conducive business conditions for digital employers to operate in compliance with fair work conditions. These types of solutions can be an alternative to existing approaches and are particularly important in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, which has underlined the need for national level engagement to promote decent work for all. 

Aims and outcomes of the project 

The objective of the wider ILO-UNHCR project, to which the research will contribute, is to improve the working conditions of forcibly displaced people and their hosting communities on digital labour platforms, and mitigating associated digital risks, while working towards conducive and inclusive national and local employment strategies in an increasingly digitalized labour market. 

The immediate outcome of this project is to identify, mitigate, and operationalize risks for refugee and host community workers when engaging in the digital economy, with a specific focus on worker’s rights in digital labour platforms. The project will result in digital refugee and host community workers being aware of their rights at work and how to realize them, while improving their working conditions, including access to social protection and digital protection. This emphasis will be complemented by awareness on broader digital risks, including privacy, exploitation, misinformation and disinformation. 

The long-term outcome will be that policymakers in government and industry will be not only more aware of issues relating to digital labour rights and digital risks faced by forcibly displaced groups, and indeed host community members too, but better equipped to address challenges through their respective areas of influence. Practical findings and learnings from innovative ways of working undertaken under the project will generate evidence of what works and can be scaled, as well providing direct impact to community members involved in these projects. By building partnerships, ensuring actors are trained, that approaches have been field tested, this project aims to carve out a pathway for change to ensure that future efforts to pioneer digital livelihoods for refugees and host communities are free of risk and cemented in fair labour foundations. 

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