Cooperatives for All? Refugees in the Platform Economy

Platform co-ops have been on the rise in the last decade, revolutionizing industries as far-ranging as rideshare, food delivery, and healthcare, to journalism, farming, and music. There has been considerable research done on platform co-op principles, like the evolution of cooperative principles throughout U.S. history and cooperative principles in blockchain-based platform co-ops. Research has also shown how platform co-ops can improve data governance, worker wellbeing, and transparency and accountability in labor markets.

But are platform co-ops a feasible solution for all communities and all labor markets?

In my research, I study the refugee digital workforce. By refugee digital workforce, I mean refugees employed in the digital economy, which comprises both work conducted on digital platforms and for remote employers (e.g., freelance, contract, part-time, and full-time work). A refugee graphic designer who works periodically on Upwork; a refugee data analyst based in Turkey who works on a contract-basis for remote clients; and a refugee software engineer based in Kenya who works full-time for a Canada-based company would all fulfill this definition. I use the term “refugee” to colloquially refer to all forcibly displaced persons: refugees, asylum-seekers, people displaced within their own country, and stateless persons.

Refugees are an exceptionally vulnerable set of workers. Constituting one percent of the world’s population, they face high rates of underemployment. 76% are hosted in low- and middle-income countries where local jobs may be in short supply, while 74% live in countries that significantly or severely restrict their de facto right to work. Online work provides a possible solution, opening up opportunities beyond refugees’ physical location, providing work in the formal economy, accelerating access to high-wage work without the need for costly licenses or degrees, and circumventing practical and legal barriers to work (see here and here for more). 

With climate change-induced migration, experts predict that displacement will reach as high as 1.2 billion people by 2050. By all accounts, refugee underemployment is a pressing issue that demands our attention, with implications for refugee and host community relations, humanitarian aid, national welfare programs, and both local and global economies. Studying refugee digital livelihoods—specifically, the pathways and blockers to work within the formal digital labor market—enables us to understand how we might improve refugee underemployment, with the aim of improving refugees’ economic stability, mobility, and wellbeing. 

Previous scholars have noted how “worker exploitation is a default” in the platform economy, as many platform companies are based in the Global North, where labor laws designate platform workers as independent contractors rather than permanent employees. As refugees increasingly engage in platform work, there are growing concerns around their ability to effectively mobilize and advocate for themselves; some argue that platform work is predicated on their marginality.

The research on platform co-ops suggests that refugees may benefit enormously from platform cooperative structures and principles, yet little attention has been paid to platform co-ops in a refugee context. In fact, upon initial review, there do not seem to be many refugee co-ops at all. 

My research project asks: 

  • Why don’t we see many platform co-ops among refugees? 
  • What are the preconditions for establishing platform co-ops in the refugee context? 
  • What are innovative models of labor platforms or labor collectives among refugees in the meantime that do not entail “exploitation as a default”? 

In addition to the typical concerns about scale, funding, and unequal worker-member participation, I hypothesize that refugee platform co-ops face unique, pronounced challenges. Much of the research done on platform co-ops assumes that workers come from a similar place of agency and legitimacy. For instance, it assumes that workers have civil rights and liberties, access to reliable infrastructure, the ability and motivation to collectively mobilize, and more often than not, a cohesive group identity. The unspoken precondition for platform co-ops is that workers are citizens.

My previous research explicates how refugees are a unique category of workers that necessitates its own focus of study. Not only do refugees hold tenuous claims to citizenship, they also encounter social and structural obstacles to work that are specific to the refugee context; grapple with political and physical safety concerns like deportation; and sometimes lack reliable access to infrastructure like internet and electricity when on the move or living in refugee camps. 

Take obstacles to work, for instance. Social obstacles are obstacles arising purely from social relations. This entails workplace discrimination based on the risk and uncertainty of hiring refugees, and prejudiced beliefs about refugees. Employers might be hesitant to hire refugees because they don’t know how to approach the bureaucratic hurdles of hiring refugees without an existing tax status, or because they might regard refugees as a political risk. Structural obstacles are obstacles arising from systems and infrastructure. This includes difficulty getting refugee IDs and work permits, registering SIM cards, and accessing financial services (see here for more). For instance, the freelancing platform Upwork only accepts credit and debit cards and Paypal as billing options. To access banking services or mobile money services, individuals must provide formal documentation. Refugees might have difficulty providing proof of residency if they live in a refugee camp, or might not have a valid refugee ID due to processing delays—thus blocking them from using Upwork at all.

The consequences of these social and structural obstacles are that refugees lack institutional access (no or limited connections to institutions), institutional recognition (rights are not recognized), and/or institutional rights (in cases where they don’t have the legal right to work at all)—which, in turn, leaves them vulnerability to exploitation and abuse in the labor market. This systemic exclusion from institutional spaces is a qualitatively different experience than that which other platform co-op members might encounter. Thus, one might presume that refugees require additional types of interventions and support to participate in platform co-ops in the first place. 

The other assumption underlying research on platform co-ops is that workers are equal members once on the platform. But what about platform co-ops that comprise both citizen workers and refugee workers? Do refugee workers have equal access to and leverage in participatory processes? Do refugees feel as safe, supported, and heard as other members within these spaces? 

My project aims to disentangle the unique experiences of refugee workers in platform co-ops and in the digital economy more broadly. First, I will interrogate the assumptions behind platform co-ops and the preconditions required for their design, development, and implementation, assessing each component within the refugee context. Next, I will examine case studies of the rare refugee co-ops that exist, identifying the factors enabling their success, and the particular obstacles and challenges that they face. Finally, using the case of a refugee-focused digital labor platform company, I will study innovative models of platform work that are developing in the meantime: platforms that prioritize refugee worker needs over client needs, or at least seek to balance them with one another. Understanding different platform models employing cooperative principles—rather than assuming that all private platforms are the same—is critical to understanding alternative ways of working in the digital economy when platform co-ops may not be a feasible option. 

Ultimately, this research project sheds light on a vastly overlooked segment of the digital workforce—refugees—and challenges us to think about the assumptions underlying platform co-ops, as well as the variation in experiences of platform co-op members.