For Migrant Workers, a Mobile Phone to Fight Isolation – and Trafficking?

5842783310_91ee4a605f_zIf you are a low-wage migrant worker from the Philippines, Nepal, or Bangladesh, the first photos of your newborn daughter might be the ones you see on Facebook as you sit in an internet café on your one day off from work. You might hear that your younger brother is going to be married from an SMS text message he sends you, or see your child’s new school uniform that she proudly shows you during a Skype call. Information and communication technology (or ICT) can be a lifeline, one of very few connections to your family and home village. After all, you might hear news of your home country’s recent flooding or election on the television in the lobby of the hotel where you work, but the television can’t tell you about the details of your daily life back home-who is building a new house, which children got into trouble, or how a friend is coping with the loss of a family member.

For many migrant workers, communication technology – whether through social media platforms, email, video chat, SMS, or phone calls – is an essential tool to fight the isolation that is so common to the migrant experience. ICT use allows migrants to maintain critical ties to their home communities and families and contributes to improved mental health. Additionally, as researchers found in a recent exploratory study by the University of Southern California’s Technology and Human Trafficking Initiative, ICT also holds potential to prevent labor trafficking or at least provide support to trafficked individuals. As both migrant-sending and receiving countries seek to minimize human rights abuses and protect migrant workers, the critical role of ICT in promoting migrant safety and wellbeing should figure more prominently into policy, planning, and innovation.

Researchers have often asserted that technology, and more specifically social media, allows migrant workers to reinforce and even strengthen ties to family and friends at home. The rise of cheap international phone calls has made such forms of communication the “social glue” connecting migrants with their communities. Communication technology has become a central way that migrants maintain and build transnational networks, and increases in affordability and access have made communication a part of daily life rather than an expensive and intermittent privilege. Access to communication can also benefit workers through improved mental health (although mental health impact may vary depending on gender and other factors). Filipino migrant workers use text messages to connect with family throughout the day and be “here and there” at the same time – combating the isolation that can lead to depression and other mental health problems, especially in domestic work settings that provide little human interaction outside of an employer’s private home.

Workers who lack access to technology might be missing out on more than keeping in touch with family and maintaining mental health. The USC study, which is a project of the Center for Communication Leadership & Policy at the Annenberg School, examines the complex relationship between ICTs and migrant workers and finds that lack of access to ICTs may make workers more vulnerable to human trafficking. The social isolation often experienced by migrant workers can also cut them off from the information and support systems that might allow them to avoid trafficking situations and also seek help when they have been trafficked. Technology provides an essential lifeline to outside social networks, and without such access, migrants are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. They also lack the means to seek help in escaping from trafficking situations, particularly when migrants are employed in isolated environments.

This is all, of course, assuming that migrant workers have access to cell phones or internet in the first place. Access to such technologies is often limited, either by employers, by lack of familiarity with phones or computers, or by cost. Even with the advent of cheaper cell phones and internet cafes, many migrant workers and their families find the cost of long-distance calls to be prohibitive and limiting. Mobile phone apps like What’s App (which has arguably become a replacement for texting in India, Latin America, and Europe), Viber, and Skype make calling and texting free, but only with access to wi-fi internet and an expensive smart phone or computer. In the Middle East, the reality for the vast majority of migrant workers is a job performing low-wage labor, earning wages that may seem generous in comparison with jobs back home but are quite meager in the context of wealthy cities like Dubai and Doha. Even when wages are more generous, migrant workers are often sending a large portion of their wages back home in the form of remittances. For those who are illiterate or unfamiliar with technology, a more likely scenario is that communication with loved ones hasn’t much changed in the past decade. Many workers, albeit far fewer than before the advent of mobile phones, communicate via landline phone or via letter, perhaps transcribed by a literate friend and delivered by a fellow worker from a neighboring village on his holiday visit home. While access to ICT is often unequal, the increasing prominence and affordability of personal devices will likely increase usage in the future.

Despite its benefits, technology, and particularly the unregulated nature of the internet, can be a double-edged sword when it comes to safe migration. While individuals might be able to access more information about the realities of jobs and life in foreign countries, the internet also provides opportunities for labor recruitment agencies to target particularly vulnerable workers and to evade policies that normally regulate their recruitment processes. The internet can be a source for the spread of information on safe migration, and it can also be a channel through which false information spreads rapidly and unchecked. False narratives might misconstrue or even glamorize working conditions, subjecting individuals to scams or fraud. The USC study acknowledges these caveats and suggests a need for further study to minimize potential for online trafficking schemes.

The potential of ICT to promote the wellbeing and safety of migrant workers should lead to its prioritization in the formulation of migrant-focused policies. The USC study recommends that the right to possess and keep a cell phone without confiscation by an employer should be an essential part of legal protections for migrant workers. Confiscation of cell phones and restrictions on phone use are common sources of isolation for domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. The Domestic Workers Convention of the ILO, passed in 2011, doesn’t contain specifications about use of ICT, and while technology use is often investigated by academic researchers, the possession of personal technology has not been discussed as a right to be protected. Anti-labor trafficking groups have begun to champion equal access to personal mobile phones as an essential tool to combat trafficking. The challenge, of course, will come with enforcing such policies, but by emphasizing to migrants that ownership of personal communication devices is a right, not a privilege, countries may be able to take practical steps towards empowering trafficking victims and promoting access to health and legal resources.

By listening to the specific needs of migrant workers in accessing technology, governments and organizations can also take steps to maximize the positive benefits of ICT use. Programs that prepare migrants before departure from the home country should include information regarding technology use while abroad, particularly for those who lack familiarity and experience. Improving literacy can allow migrants with the ability to use tools like SMS and the internet. Receiving countries, as well, can engage in efforts to ensure migrants have access to affordable technology in the form of mobile phones and internet cafes. The potential for internet-based resources that provide support and information for the victims of trafficking offers space for creative and innovative tools that might become lifelines for workers. While migrants often engage with common social media networks such as Facebook, new, migrant-specific platforms could make communication with families more user-friendly and accessible. Such platforms could simultaneously facilitate online communication while at the same time providing useful resources for migrants seeking assistance or information related to their employment, rights, or health and allowing individuals to build virtual communities with other migrants.

Communication technology has already drastically changed the way that the average human builds social networks, seeks support and accesses information. When placed in the hands of a migrant, it becomes a lifeline – one that policymakers should not underestimate.

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