Technology and responsible data for migrant workers

Zara Rahman

Earlier this year, we worked with the Migration Initiative at Open Society Foundations to look at the responsible data challenges that arise when using technology in support of migrant workers rights. We conducted research and gave input to work done by Bassina Farbenblum, Laurie Berg and Angela Kintominas, and the final report from the initiative is now published by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative, entitled Transformative Technology for Migrant Workers.

Download the report.

As we’ve seen throughout our responsible data work, digital technologies offer many new and exciting opportunities for social justice and advocacy work – from new ways of gathering data and facilitation of access to information, to better ways of flagging potential rights violations. At the same time, digital technologies open up new vulnerabilities for that same work, as we outlined in our report on organisational security for civil society, Ties That Bind.

In the migrant workers sector, there are huge power asymmetries at play between the various actors, which include the migrant workers themselves, their recruiters or employers, and other intermediaries. Through our research, we identified several responsible data issues at play in this context. It’s worth noting that very few are entirely unique to the migrant workers sector.

  • Infrastructure: One of the most commonly used platforms for worker rights initiatives is Facebook, which is a powerful worker engagement tool but also raises serious security concerns given that it is a privately owned, commercial online space.
  • Data ownership, trust and access: Particularly for initiatives that collect data about migrant workers, their activities or their experiences (whether intentionally or as a byproduct of collecting other data), there are associated risks to consider. These include data loss through interception, hacking, data breach, or government subpoenas.
  • Managing user expectations: When a migrant worker commits their time to use a particular digital technology initiative they are doing so because they have certain expectations of the tool. If those expectations are not met, it can result in users losing motivation to continue with the technology, and can lead to reduced uptake of digital initiatives.
  • Informed consent: As in any sector where there is a power asymmetry between the people from whom data is being collected and the actors collecting the data, ensuring that consent is as informed, active and voluntary as possible is crucial to respecting their rights and their agency.
  • Sustainability: Beyond the concerns of sustainable funding for the initiative themselves, technology initiatives need to think about sustainability of the information (ensuring the information provided and collected is updated and useful for as long as the information is live); sustainability of the technology (ensuring that the platforms or frameworks used are likely to be updated and used in the future); and resource sustainability (ensuring that enough resources remain at the end of any project to be able to responsibly retire it).

Many more insights are shared in the final report. We are grateful to have been able to learn from many experts on migrant worker rights and from those who had first-hand experience designing tools to support in upholding and furthering migrant worker rights.

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