Domestic workers are at risk of forced labor, but evidence shows ethical recruitment can lessen it.

Overseas Filipino Worker Voices: A Study of Forced Labor Among Migrant Workers from the Philippines

Overseas labor migration has been a feature of the Filipino economy for over a century. Over the last thirty years, overseas labor migration has become an increasingly important part of the country’s economy, reducing unemployment and strengthening US dollar reserves. However, many Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) —particularly those employed as domestic workers or in occupations viewed as “low-skilled”—are often subject to unethical recruitment mechanisms, deceptive hiring practices, and forced labor conditions after arriving in the receiving country. This situation has been exacerbated by the profound economic, public health, and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have caused uncertainty, skyrocketing unemployment, and large-scale repatriation among migrant workers globally.

This study sought to determine the pathways leading to forced labor/trafficking in persons (TIP) and the distribution of forced labor indicators among samples of OFWs in several destination countries and industries. In concert with GFEMS, the University of Philippines Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders (CIFAL), and grantee organizations including the Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), Two Six Technologies (TST) implemented this multi-cohort survey effort and examined the occurrence, distribution and dimensions of labor exploitation among study participants in three distinct study cohorts.

Findings show that overall, approximately 26.4% of all study participants reported experiencing Tier 2* or worse forced labor conditions, and that domestic work—a female-dominated profession among OFWs—is associated with an even higher rate of forced labor with 42.9% of domestic workers experiencing conditions meeting at least Tier 2 conditions. Among other recommendations included in the report, researchers call for enhancements to pre-departure training to include content that better prepares workers for the risks they may face abroad.

For more findings and recommendations, read the full report.

*For the analysis, forced labor was categorized by levels of severity with Tier 1A being most severe and including threats of violence to self or family, restricted movement, and debt bondage.  Tier 1 included both threats and restricted movement.  Tier 2 does not include threats of violence or restricted movement but may include working more hours than agreed upon, working on rest days, and debt bondage.

This study was funded by a grant from the United States Department of State through the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS). The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of State or GFEMS.

Evidence shows that placement through ethical recruitment channels has a protective effect.

GFEMS Research and Programming: Strengthening Systems for Filipino Migration

Migrant workers are critical contributors to the global economy, and the Philippines is a leading country of origin for migrant labor. Each year, over 2 million Filipinos work overseas – nearly one million of whom are hired into so-called “elementary occupations”, including construction, transportation, and domestic work. These lower-skilled migrant workers, and female domestic workers in particular, are highly vulnerable to exploitation – often subject to unethical recruitment mechanisms, deceptive hiring practices, and forced labor conditions after arriving in the receiving country.

From 2018 to 2022, GFEMS supported research and programming, led by our implementing partners Two Six Technologies (TST), Blas F. Ople Policy Center (Ople Center), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), to better understand and address issues across the labor migration system.

Study findings indicate that Filipino migrant workers face considerable risks to their freedom, and economic and
personal safety.

Findings from this research and programming help to (1) understand and address vulnerabilities for Filipino domestic workers; (2) equip government and other stakeholders to investigate and tackle labor abuses; and (3) support a shift towards ethical recruitment practices in the sector.

For more findings and recommendations, download the briefing.

This research was funded by a grant from the US Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

GFEMS secures two new corporate partners, expands to Malaysia and Indonesia

The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery Announces New Program to Support Migrant Workers in Malaysia, Indonesia

The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) is excited to announce a new partnership with a corporate foundation to create safer migration pathways for migrant workers in Malaysia and Indonesia. The foundation’s $1.2 million commitment will empower more workers with tools and knowledge to migrate safely and will engage businesses to promote ethical recruitment and fair labor practices.

An estimated 200,000 workers in Malaysia face conditions of exploitation and forced labor. As a result of these challenges, Malaysia recently downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. Department of State 2021 Trafficking In Persons report. 

The Fund’s new program will expand support for migrant workers to Malaysia, reaching over one thousand migrants, to empower workers, support safe migration, and expand opportunities for decent work. With partners ELEVATE, Diginex, and Winrock, GFEMS will launch SafeStep, a best-in-class mobile app providing resources and information for migrant workers, in Malaysia. This program builds on an initial $1.3 million, two-year investment during which GFEMS and ELEVATE developed and piloted SafeStep with workers migrating from Bangladesh to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. This pilot revealed the potential for safer migration when migrants are equipped with reliable and accessible information. This additional investment will enable SafeStep to expand to Malaysia, supporting user growth in Bangladesh and expanding functionality for employers. This effort will also be boosted by a $450,000 investment by The Walt Disney Company supporting development of a grievance mechanism for workers in Malaysia. 

The program will also support the growth of Pinkcollar, an ethical recruitment startup in Malaysia that places overseas workers in safe jobs without charging any fees. With this support, Pinkcollar will expand their operations to Indonesia, supporting more migrants to find safe employment and deepening the business case for the ethical recruitment models needed to disrupt forced labor. To tell the story of how these efforts can improve the migration journey for workers across Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, GFEMS will partner with DAWNING to conduct a longitudinal study of Pinkcollar and SafeStep’s work and produce a compelling multimedia report.

“The Fund is proud to expand this innovative program that empowers migrant workers to make informed decisions, as well as contribute to ethical and sustainable businesses. This investment will allow us to scale up promising interventions and launch in new places. Ultimately, we aim to create breakthroughs by changing exploitative industry standards.”

— Helen Taylor, Chief Operating Officer, The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery

To learn more about our ethical recruitment work, please visit our portfolio. Click here to learn more about our partners. Any inquiries regarding this announcement may be sent to

Migrants worked an average of 99 hours per week, and 30% of migrants worked more than 120 hours per week on average.

Prevalence Estimate: Forced Labor among Ugandan Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council

Our findings suggest that the vast majority of Ugandan migrants in the Middle East experience conditions consistent with human trafficking. At the same time, promoting more ethical recruitment practices may help to address this issue.

This study was carried out by ICF and the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, Makerere University, who conducted a respondent-driven sampling (RDS) study in Uganda. The RDS study targeted migrant workers who currently work in the Middle East or who have worked in the Middle East in the past 3 years to explore the prevalence and characteristics of human trafficking experienced during their recruitment and employment.

To our knowledge, this study is the first to explore the characteristics of working and living conditions among Ugandans working in the Middle East using a representative sample, as well as the first to offer a prevalence estimate of human trafficking for Ugandans in the Middle East.

The purpose of this study is to inform Global Fund to End Modern Slavery-funded programming on more effective methods to reduce the risk of human trafficking and support survivors of human trafficking in Uganda.

The study found that the majority (89%) of migrants reported experiences consistent with human trafficking and more than one-fourth (27%) of migrants experienced severe exploitation, defined as threats of or actual violence or psychological abuse. However, the study also found that the prevalence of human trafficking and severe exploitation were lower among migrants who experienced fewer instances of unethical recruitment. In fact, regression analysis indicates that with each additional unethical recruitment practice experienced, the odds of both human trafficking and severe exploitation nearly triple. This suggests that efforts to promote more ethical recruitment processes may help to reduce the prevalence of trafficking among Ugandan migrants in the Middle East. 

For key findings and recommendations, download the briefing. For more, download the full report.

Our findings showed 99% of respondents encountered at least one type of labor abuse.

Prevalence Estimate: Forced Labor Among Kenyan Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council

In essence, practically everyone heading to the GCC as a migrant worker from Kenya would become a victim of forced labor at some point.

GFEMS has launched a series of projects to combat forced labor among Kenyan migrant workers. As a part of this effort, GFEMS engaged NORC to measure the prevalence of forced labor among recently returned Kenyan migrant workers from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (e.g., Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia).

There were extensive forced labor violations among surveyed respondents. We found that 98.73% of the sample, or 1,007 out of the total 1,020 respondents, reported having experienced at least one of the four categories of workplace labor abuses, or were unable to exit an abusive employment situation. We estimated the rate of forced labor among the Kenyan migrant labor population in GCC countries to be 98.24%. In essence, practically everyone heading to the GCC as a migrant worker from Kenya would become a victim of forced labor at some point.

For key findings and recommendations, download the briefing. For more, download the full report:

For many migrants, returning home can bring new trauma.

The Long Return: Supporting Reintegration for Returning Migrants in Bangladesh

Farishta* was sick and bleeding when she arrived at the recruitment agency. She had been dropped there only after her illness had become severe enough that her employers worried she might not survive. Concerned about their own futures, the couple that had exploited and abused Farishta as a domestic worker in their home for the last six months finally returned her to the same recruitment agency in Saudi Arabia that had placed her. But, after a day, the agency delivered Farishta to the police. Claiming she was in the country illegally, the police held Farishta for another eight days, and for another eight days, she was denied medical attention. Farishta was told she could go home if she could quickly arrange the cost of a ticket back to Bangladesh. From the police station, Farishta contacted her husband who was able to borrow BDT 40,000 (USD $471) to bring Farishta home. It seemed her harrowing experience was coming to an end.

However, when Farishta returned to Bangladesh her struggle continued. She was shunned by her family, her oldest son refusing to call her mother. While coping with the emotional trauma of rejection, Farishta’s physical health continued to deteriorate. Still bleeding and growing weaker every day, Farishta borrowed money to see a gynecologist who advised surgery and medication. Farishta could afford neither. Though she had escaped abuse and exploitation at the hands of her overseas employer, the trauma Farishta experienced and continued to endure after returning home was overwhelming. She had thoughts of taking her own life.

Struggling to reintegrate into her family and community, Farishta was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization in Bangladesh.

With OKUP’s support, Farishta began to heal physically and mentally.

She received needed medical treatment and psycho-social counseling. At the same time, OKUP provided counseling to Farishta’s family to help them understand her trauma and to engage them in supporting Farishta’s recovery. Farishta’s relationship with her family has improved and she is reconnecting with her eldest son.

Family support was critical for Farishta’s recovery and reintegration, but Farishta also needed a sustainable livelihood for herself and her family. After excelling in OKUP’s life skills training course, she was referred to a partner organization, Caritas Bangladesh, for assistance to start a small business. Farishta is now raising ducks and chickens, selling eggs to earn money for her family. She has plans to acquire more animals and to remain at home in Bangladesh.

Though her migration experience was one of pain and exploitation, Farishta found a way forward with the support of OKUP and others working to strengthen reintegration support for returning migrants. While providing necessary psychosocial and livelihood support to survivors like Farishta, OKUP is working with a consortium of GFEMS-funded partners to raise community awareness of the challenges returnees face and to advocate improvements in government services and response. Together, we are supporting returnees to sustainably reintegrate and reforming systems to better serve survivors and vulnerable migrants. Farishta, while still managing her own trauma, has begun working with other returnees in her community to help them recover and thrive.

The Challenges of Return

Remittances are the lifeblood of millions of families in Bangladesh. In 2019, remittances sent via formal channels topped $18.3 billion USD- or 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. For families of overseas workers, this money accounts for 85 percent of daily expenditures; sixty percent of these families are totally dependent on remittances for their daily expenses. Multiple family members often rely on the wages of a single migrant worker, creating pressure on migrant workers to “succeed” abroad.

The expectation that migration will improve a family’s financial situation often shapes a migrant’s return experience. Those who return with no money or savings are commonly viewed as “failed” migrants and are ostracized by communities and even families. For the women and men who are deceived, exploited, and abused as overseas workers, rejection at home only adds to the trauma and isolation experienced abroad. Women especially are shunned by communities and family members for sexual abuse they endured, either real or perceived. According to a recent report by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 52% of more than 300 female returnees interviewed felt there was “a change of social attitude” towards them after their return. Many reported that they had become common targets for gossip; that they experienced an increase in judgmental attitudes towards them upon return; and that they were regularly subjected to derogatory remarks from community members. Significantly, none of the interviewees made any formal complaints to any authority regarding their treatment. The outbreak of a global pandemic in early 2020 only increased the social stigma surrounding returnees as they were now branded carriers of COVID-19. Without improved systems and services to provide returning migrants needed psychosocial and livelihoods support, many will again turn abroad and to the same unsafe channels of migration.

Afsari’s Story

Confronting extreme financial hardship at home, Afsari made the decision to seek work abroad after hearing she could earn a decent wage. Afsari endured 15 months of exploitation and abuse before she was able to earn enough to pay off the debt of BDT 160,000 (approximately $1,890 USD) owed to a labor recruiter. Afsari returned home, but without the wages she had been promised and now under the weight of new trauma. She was introduced to Caritas where she completed tailoring training, began teaching tailoring classes, and received seed money to begin her own tailoring business. Afsari now earns enough to cover her family’s daily needs, including schooling for her daughter, and is saving for her future.

Supporting Sustainable Reintegration

According to IOM, “reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities, and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers.” When sustainable reintegration is achieved, future decisions about migration become a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is what we are working to achieve with our partners in Bangladesh. Supported by funding from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) is leading a project with OKUP and Caritas Bangladesh to provide short- and long-term support for survivors and vulnerable migrants and advocate for strengthened government response and reintegration programs.

Working together, CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are able to provide holistic services to returnees and vulnerable migrants, ensuring migrants can access needed support from the moment they return to that when they no longer need it. With an understanding that migrants have different migration experiences and different needs upon return, partners in the consortium leverage their unique strengths and networks to provide each returnee tailored yet comprehensive support.

Recovery and Reintegration Begins the Moment a Migrant Returns

OKUP provides short-term emergency service for returnees, including airport pick up and shelter services. In the worst of scenarios, OKUP coordinate airport transfers of bodies to the families of the migrant worker; they also support families to apply to the government to pay for the funeral costs. In addition, OKUP aids with medical referrals and applications for government health grants that can pay a migrant’s medical costs. They provide psychosocial counseling to returnees and their families, and, in instances of severe trauma, OKUP extends long-term counseling support.

Beyond emergency support, OKUP have established community-led groups of returnee migrant workers known as migrant forums and facilitates their regular meetings to provide information to returnees and vulnerable migrants on relevant matters including how to access loans and other financial support. During one recent meeting, more than 200 migrants were supported to access government benefits- a vital lifeline as the pandemic continues to shake financial security.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Engage the Community

OKUP also engages the community to support reintegration efforts. Through outreach and awareness-raising activities, OKUP is helping communities understand the unique challenges migrants confront and working to reduce the social stigma that attaches to them upon return. With more than a decade of experience supporting returnees and vulnerable migrants, OKUP understands the significance of community engagement, and employs traditional and non-traditional methods, including theatrical performance, to build these networks of support. For example, in an OKUP-sponsored play about a woman’s migration journey and her abuse overseas, the focus is on her return and the importance of community support. These efforts are reaching thousands; in just one quarter, OKUP’s outreach activities engaged over 17,000 individuals across 8 high-migration districts.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Include Livelihoods Support

Building on OKUP’s sustainable reintegration efforts, Caritas Bangladesh provides skills and entrepreneurship training to prepare survivors and vulnerable migrants for sustainable employment. Participants are able to self-select their economic reintegration activities, selecting a business track that draws on their own skills and interests. With agency to determine their own futures, survivors and returnee migrants can choose employment opportunities that meet their own needs, increasing the likelihood of success and sustainability.
To date, Caritas Bangladesh has supported over 600 individuals to start their own small businesses. After completing entrepreneurship training and courses covering subjects such as business principles, trade licensing, and accounting, graduates are supported to develop small business plans before Caritas Bangladesh transfers seed money to help them push these ideas forward. Caritas Bangladesh currently supports survivors and vulnerable migrants across nearly 50 different vocations, from animal husbandry to tailoring to auto work.

It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers.

— Richard Sloman, CAFOD

Sustainable Reintegration Must be Supported by Government

While supporting individual returnees to reintegrate, the consortium is also advocating local and state government to strengthen referral systems. OKUP is coordinating with the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board to strengthen referral services from the airport to ensure returnees in need of support are identified and referred for services. Though COVID has imposed new challenges, diverting government resources and capacity, progress is being made. OKUP reports that new cases are starting to be referred. Building on these advocacy efforts, CAFOD, in collaboration with a team of research consultants, recently published a report identifying gaps in the current referral system. The report includes several recommendations and is being used as an advocacy tool for the government to strengthen referral systems. The consortium remains steadfast in its advocacy efforts and continues to press relevant officials to take action. In 2022, the consortium will be hosting a series of referral guideline workshops with government Ministry officials to discuss findings from the referral research.

“It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers. These workshops provide an excellent opportunity to develop a strong, holistic and inclusive referral mechanism which will dramatically improve the support returnee migrants, particularly survivors of abuse and exploitation, receive when they return to Bangladesh.”
Richard Sloman (CAFOD)

While CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are providing critical support to vulnerable individuals and communities, their partnership is what is transforming systems and creating sustainable change. Sharing knowledge, building partner capacity, and providing comprehensive and holistic care, they are supporting returnees through recovery and reintegration. Working together, they are changing the systems that enable modern slavery to thrive.

*Some names in this blog have been changed to protect identities.

Ethical recruitment is good for migrants and employers.


GFEMS is providing critical, early operational and strategic support to Pinkcollar, the first ethical recruitment agency operating out of Malaysia. In this project, Pinkcollar will expand in two directions: to a new source country (Indonesia) and sector (manufacturing). The Fund’s support will help Pinkcollar accelerate the process of growing and operating an agency. By the end of the project, they will have established operations in Indonesia, placed approximately 50 workers in Malaysia, and be well positioned to double their worker placements year over year. After Fair Employment Foundation and The Ethical Recruitment Agency – India, Pinkcollar is the third ethical recruitment agency, and the first in Malaysia, that GFEMS has supported.

Replicating What Works

Pinkcollar, Malaysia’s first agency created for ethical recruitment, opened its doors in 2019. It did so with the support and guidance of Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), a successful ethical recruitment agency operating in Hong Kong and partner of the Global Fund. FEF’s CEO is certain that, with more agencies pursuing ethical recruitment models, we can “achieve our aim of ending forced labour of migrant workers.”

Read More

About Pinkcollar

Since November 2017, Pinkcollar has set out to do one thing: improve recruitment and hiring practices for Malaysia’s domestic work sector.

Pinkcollar Employment Agency is a professional recruitment agency licensed by the Malaysian Labour Department and accredited by the Philippine Overseas Labour Administration. It is a first-of-its-kind solution for employers looking for a better way to hire domestic workers, and for workers seeking safe and dignified jobs.

Our research shows increased vulnerability to forced labor conditions among migrant workers, and increasing pressure on children to participate in the commercial sex industry.

The Impact of COVID-19 on trafficking in Kenya and Uganda

Responding to COVID-19 in Uganda and Kenya: In the spring of 2021, GFEMS commissioned a series of interrelated studies to assess the short, medium, and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations in key sectors in Kenya and Uganda and identify ways in which GFEMS-funded programming can be adapted to better support them. The studies revealed increased vulnerability to forced labor conditions among migrant workers as well as limited access to economic alternatives for returnee migrants, prompting remigration. The studies also revealed increasing pressure on vulnerable children to engage in the commercial sex industry, primarily driven by economic necessity and school closures. Children already engaged in the industry experienced an increase in economic insecurity and violent abuse as well as reduced access to support services.  

Partners: ICF, Makerere University, NORC at the University of Chicago, Kantar Public


Situational Analysis: Impact of COVID-19 on Overseas Labor Recruitment
Situational Analysis: Impact of COVID-19 on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children


Situational Analysis: Impact of COVID-19 on Overseas Labor Recruitment
Situational Analysis: Impacts of COVID-19 on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

SafeStep empowers migrant workers with knowledge and resources to make informed decisions and ultimately to take greater control over their migration journeys.

Democratizing Migration: How a Mobile App is Empowering Migrant Workers and Disrupting Migration Systems

For migrant workers across the globe, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and nation-wide lockdowns have taken a heavy toll. Confronting job losses, reduced work hours and salaries, and a rise in deportations, migrant workers are also coping with the mental effects of a pandemic that has left them isolated in a foreign place and uncertain of their future and that of their families. Coming out of the pandemic, people the world over are starting to ask how we can do things differently. How can we build back better to ensure safety and security for migrant workers? SafeStep is one answer. 

“This is the real milestone in the migration sector. It is a modern approach and landmark in the migration justice system. We have to work together to make it inclusive.”

— Barrister Shamim Haider Patwary, MP

SafeStep is a digital tool to promote safe migration. Collaboratively developed by our partners ELEVATE, Diginex Solutions, and Winrock International, SafeStep recently launched in Bangladesh in a virtual event attended by government officials, and representatives from key stakeholder groups including international development organisations and national NGOS, recruitment agencies, and migrant rights groups. Former Secretary General of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, expressed the need for embassies and destination countries to adopt the app, citing “digitalisation in the entire migration sector” as the key to ending migrant exploitation. Barrister Shamim Haider Patwary, MP, called the app a “real milestone in the migration sector...a modern approach and landmark in the migration justice system.” 

Installed on any digital device, the SafeStep application allows migrants to input and upload relevant migration data and provides important information and guidance for safe migration. While simplifying a complex migration process, SafeStep empowers migrant workers with knowledge and resources to make informed decisions and ultimately to take greater control over their migration journeys.

Risky Migration: Bangladesh to the Gulf

Bangladesh has one of the largest emigrant populations in the world. Nearly 8 million of its 160 million residents live abroad; more than half – or approximately 4.2 million– of these emigrants work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These migrant workers contribute significantly to Bangladesh’s economy. In 2019, remittances totaled U.S. $18.3 billion or 6% of the country’s GDP, 73% of which came from the GCC countries. For many Bangladeshi families, remittances are the primary source of household income. 

Most Bangladeshi migrant workers are unskilled and from impoverished regions. They leave their homes to earn more money abroad and secure a better future for themselves and the families they leave behind.  However, migration offers no financial guarantees. What is certain is that migration is a decision that carries heavy risk.

One of the greatest threats to safe migration in Bangladesh is the dalal- an unlicensed recruitment agent or broker who charges migrants exploitative and unlawful fees to facilitate overseas migration.  Without a better understanding of the migration process, migrants pay these recruiters to arrange job placements and contracts and manage the logistics of migrating abroad. Dalals may make grand promises but migrants often find that jobs do not match the recruiter’s description or, in some cases, that a job doesn’t exist at all. 

SafeStep is intended to reduce migrants’ reliance on dalals and empower migrants to make their own decisions. With a better understanding of the end-to-end migration process and tools to make this process easier, migrants are less vulnerable to exploitation and better prepared for work and life overseas.

SafeStep’s Features:

Users can first select their preferred language; the application is available in both English and Bengali with a third language option, Arabic, currently in development. Users then have access to five primary features:

  1. Profile: The profile feature allows migrants to input relevant information on previous work experience and professional skills. Developers seek to improve this feature by including data on which jobs and skills are in highest demand in destination countries and mean salaries for various positions. This add-on will guide migrants to make better-informed decisions. 
  2. Migration Checklist: While sixty percent of Bangladeshi migrant workers do not migrate with employment contracts in place, this feature enables users to track, collect, and manage important documents and files in a centralized location, or what the app refers to as a user’s digital library. In the absence of a more formal contract, migrants are encouraged to record and upload audio or visual files that capture what has been promised and what has already been paid. In building this digital evidence trail, users are also able to upload identity documents for safe-keeping and verification.
  3. Budget Calculator: This feature creates awareness of the true costs of migration to help migrants decide whether or not to go. Users are prompted to input financial data- i.e. loans and fees, salary expectations, planned remittances- to calculate whether migration makes financial sense. Data to support this calculation is crowd-sourced, meaning it is collected in real-time to provide migrants the most current and accurate information.
  4. E-Learning: Migrants can access a series of custom videos, available in both English and Bengali, to learn more about what to expect during the migration process and how to prepare for that journey. Recent uploads target migrant workers in the hospitality sector and the domestic service industry where women make up 80% of the workforce.
  5. Help: Safestep’s Help Center is powered by artificial intelligence. While a chatbot delivers real-time responses, its functionality improves with each question asked. The Help feature includes information on emergency services and directs users to a live operator in instances of urgent need. 

An Application for Migrants, By Migrants

To be useful, a digital tool must be accessible. To be useful to migrant workers in Bangladesh, SafeStep had to be written in Bengali. But other country-specific, user-specific factors had to be considered if migrants were really to benefit from the app.

Android has the largest mobile operating market share in Bangladesh. Thus, developers built the app on the Android operating system to optimize the user experience for Bangladeshi migrant workers- SafeStep’s intended user base. Less obvious considerations became apparent during the early scoping and development phases. On the ground in Bangladesh, for example, the SafeStep team learned that many migrant workers lacked reliable access to charging stations, or sometimes electricity, for their mobile devices.  At pre-departure or training sites in particular, it is common that a single outlet serves dozens of migrant workers. To address this challenge, developers configured SafeStep to operate fully in a night mode setting, helping users conserve battery life while still being able to access critical resources.

Even with significant progress made on SafeStep’s development, the ELEVATE team and its partner organizations continued to solicit input and recommendations from migrant workers to make it work better for them. It was from worker feedback and that of other stakeholders that the budget calculator – perhaps the most useful feature for migrant workers- came to be included in the application. If the goal of migration is to earn more money, then being able to calculate the “true” cost of migration empowers migrants to make more informed migration decisions. 

Technology’s Potential to Democratize Migration

Migrant workers are easily exploited because they often lack access to information. With a determination to migrate but without a true understanding of how to do it safely, migrants turn to dalals and other sources of misinformation to navigate them through the process. Though internet usage in Bangladesh is low (below 50%), mobile remains the primary means of internet access. Efforts to increase both internet usage and digital literacy have expanded in recent years. According to a 2020 GSMA study, smartphone penetration rates will reach 69% by 2025 (compared to a current rate of 41%.) As the country moves towards greater digital capability, digital tools such as SafeStep have the potential to democratize access to information, thereby wresting power from those who seek to exploit migrant workers and installing it with migrants themselves.  

Despite its democratizing potential, SafeStep has thus far attracted many more men than women. While this can be partially attributed to the fact that fewer women migrate to the GCC countries than men, it is also reflective of the broader digital gender divide. In Bangladesh, the gender gap in internet usage is 55.6%, meaning men are 55 times as likely to use the internet than women. Before the pandemic, women in low- and middle-income countries were already 8% less likely than men to own mobile phones- a statistic that has only widened as women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by COVID disruptions to education and economy.  In Bangladesh, many women, especially women in rural areas, can access the internet only through shared connections, meaning they have less control over when they can connect and for how long. 

The SafeStep consortium is advocating for solutions that facilitate greater access of women and girls to mobile internet and disrupt gender stereotypes that keep Bangladeshi women out of public spaces such as digital centers. They continue to research how they might get the app to more female migrants and eventually achieve true gender representation in the SafeStep user-base. Technology, like that deployed in SafeStep, has the power to change broken migration systems but its ultimate success is tied to uprooting other systems of inequality.

At a recent launch event, a Winrock official reiterated that the current application is not the final version and that more features are being added. Additional functionalities and features will target recruiters and employers in GCC countries. The goal is to make migration safer for workers from beginning to end. While thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers have already downloaded and are using the SafeStep app, other stakeholders are recognizing its potential to change harmful migration trends. Implementers of the “Strengthened and Informative Migration Systems (SIMS)” project, an initiative funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) supporting Bangladeshi migrant workers to make informed migration decisions, is incorporating SafeStep’s budget calculator in its trainings. Winrock expects that this initiative will reach 100,000 potential migrants. Empowering migrant workers with information and sharing what works with others in the field is how we create safer migration pathways. It is how we protect migrant workers and reduce vulnerabilities to exploitation. It is how we change systems that perpetuate modern slavery.

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