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.