IELab Webinar with Sophia Kagan from the ILO

The Inclusive Economies Lab is a program that leverages the Pitchworthy platform and learning methodologies to discover, map and support innovative projects that can improve employment opportunities and conditions for migrants, refugees and marginalized workers in the MENA region.

As part of this effort, we hosted an insightful Q&A session with Sophia Kagan from the International Labor Organization on September 30, 2019. In this blog post, we uncover the learnings and key insights from this conversation.

First we heard from Sophia’s experience at the ILO

“I’m a chief technical adviser of the regional fair migration project in the Middle East. I primarily look into situations of migration workers. I’ve been working on migration for the last 7-8 years with the ILO. I started in China where I was looking at the migration of young people from rural to urban areas to work in manufacturing. I then went to the Pacific where I worked on the issue of climate change displacement. For the past 3 years I’ve been working in Beirut but largely focusing on Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf countries and looking into the situation of construction workers and domestic workers.

Starting with the basics, there were 15 million migrants in 1990 and that number grew to 36 million in 2015 and the number keeps growing. Migration is much more likely to occur as a result of people deciding to move from work rather than being displaced because of war. They may be forced to move because of poverty or climate change. They are in a vulnerable economic situations and are attracted to parts of the Middle East because of job opportunities.

The vast majority (8.2 million) migrant workers come from India, 3.5 million are refugees from Palestine and 3 million are refugees from Syria.

74% of migrants are in the Gulf area. 12.6 million migrant workers live and work in Saudi and around 8.1 million live and work in the UAE.

The majority of the workers in the Gulf are much more likely to be manual laborers working on construction sites, or they’re domestic workers looking after children or the elderly.

Migrant workers can be exceptionally vulnerable. The contract they sign in their country of origin might not reflect the specific work conditions at arrival. The passport might be confiscated. Migrants might not be included in social security or able to join unions. This is what the ILO tries to work on. It’s not about ensuring a job but about ensuring a decent job or decent work.

For migrant workers there are a number of additional vulnerabilities because they don’t speak the language, or won’t be familiar with the protections in place under the law. Workers might have to pay 6-10 month to the recruiter of the job and this is referred to as dead bondage. A worker is required to pay a disproportionate amount to buy their job. The worker is working almost for free to pay back his debt to the recruiter.

The SDGs recognised the importance of migration: they committed to protect workers and insure they are able to make a contribution to development through remittances.

There’s also two global compacts which are non binding agreements that countries will take in order to ensure the protection of refugees and migrants.

The ILO is a UN agency, we were created 100 years ago in 1919 under the league of nations. We promote the role of social dialogue. We focus entirely on the world of work: job creation, protection of workers, occupational safety and health, etc… We work with the government, the private sector and worker representatives to ensure the outcome is fair to all parties. We promote freedom of association which means workers’ rights to form unions and build collective voices based on the idea that together, workers can be much more powerful and impactful.

There are 3 initiatives that have been established as tech platforms to support migrant workers:

The first is coworker, a petition site similar to It enables workers to get together and start a petition to improve their working conditions. It can bring together isolated workers and allow them to share their joint problems and address them as a campaign. The idea is that this platform can break the isolation of workers.

The second is workit, developed by walmart employees. This platform allows a peer to peer approach. It’s a space for petitions and to engage with walmart senior management. It’s also an information awareness raising tool. If workers want to know more about their rights, they can go to that platform and find their answers.

The third is recruitment advisor. It’s the trip advisor for recruitment agencies. One of the challenges workers face is that there are thousands of recruitment agencies that send workers to the Middle East and it can be very hard for a worker to know which company they should join and would protect their rights. This platform allows workers to review the recruitment agencies for more transparency.”

This presentation was followed by a Q&A.

What are some of the opportunities that startups could find in big organisations?

Connecting workers to one another and enabling them to collectively raise their issues is something that grass-roots organisations are really good at. Nothing beats the community organiser who can speak to workers and gather the information to put it into a platform. So part of it is trying to break down the isolation that workers face. Initiatives that promote information sharing and communication can really help. Expanding the dialogue between workers is quite important. Other aspects of smaller entrepreneurial initiatives can be aimed to increasing information to migrant workers about the law, their rights, the services and protection they can access.

Are there things happening that are interesting solutions that could benefit from technology?

Organising workers is the first thing that comes to mind. And tech solutions are the first thing that comes to mind to bring together workers through a shared purpose. In Lebanon, the migrant community centers is a place where workers can do language classes, socializing, and be supported and encouraged and empowered. It’s an interesting kind of innovation in Lebanon. Those centers are being setup in places like Jordan but it’s challenging to do the same thing in the Gulf. These places can evolve into opportunities for social dialogue and collective action.

What are the opportunities for engagement and how can we communicate the benefits of working on migrants and refugees issues?

The private sector is interested in engaging in this because good employers realize the benefits of keeping your workforce happy. If workers have grievances, they should be able to raise them before it reaches a boiling point.

Working with the civil society partnership, we’re trying to work on promoting a positive non discriminatory attitude towards migrant workers and refugees.

We’re also working with journalists so they’re aware of fair language to use when describing migrants and refugees.

Is there any success stories in terms of fair treatment in the Gulf region?

We’ve had the most success in Qatar and that’s because there was a huge amount of pressure from trade unions, civil society activists about the labor conditions for the workers building the stadium. As a result of this scrutiny and pressure, the government agreed to an ambitious program of labor reforms around the kafala system and the wage protection system. There are still no trade unions in Qatar or the UAE or Saudi Arabia. Those trade unions in other countries are often represented by nationals rather than migrant workers. Without them, it’s hard to put pressure on the government for labor reform.

What’s the position of the ILO on remote work?

The ILO has no objection to remote work. A lot of remote work is being done through crowdfunding platforms or the gig economy and there’s a number of issues to that. In fact, we published a report on those websites and we found that those workers were very underpaid, were not eligible for social protection, sometimes they had issues with being paid and because there’s no unionization, it’s hard to be protected.