Democratizing Migration: How a Mobile App is Empowering Migrant Workers and Disrupting Migration Systems
July 9, 2021
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.”
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.