Emerging Insights 2019: Labor and Migration

Protecting a mobilized labor force
Insight 06 - Labor & Migration
Source: Venture / Fellowship


While there is evidence to suggest that worldwide unemployment rates have been steadily declining, this trend has not coincided with a similar decline in low-quality and dangerous working conditions. In 2018, 3.3 million people did not enjoy economic security, material well-being or equality in opportunity and 700 million people continue to live in poverty even though they are employed[12].

Labor and migration go hand-in-hand. Lack of employment and labor conditions are a big reason that workers make the journey across international borders to seek economic opportunity. In 2018, there were 164 million migrant workers, most of whom should be the most vibrant and productive members of their home country’s workforce[13].


This year, Ashoka Fellows are working to solve many of the fundamental issues at the heart of labor migration. They are tackling the complicated networks of cross-border employment by going to employment agencies, companies and domestic employers to shift mindsets toward equitable pay and fair conditions. They are also working to revive and create industries in their home countries, to provide opportunities that provide an antidote to migration. Their work shows new avenues to overcome unequal and unfair labor practices worldwide.

Globalized movements for migrant workers

There are an estimated 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the world; 380,000 workers, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, work in Hong Kong. By law, migrant workers are required to use employment agencies in order to seek employment in Hong Kong, a system that is rife with abuse. A 2016 report by the Justice Centre found that 1 in 6 domestic workers in Hong Kong was forced into labor and 31% do not feel they are able to change their employer due to a high debt burden that begins before they’ve even arrived[14].

 Scott Stiles is working to change this pattern of debt bondage and exploitation with his organization, the Fair Employment Agency (FEA). He has removed the fee for migrant job seekers and focuses on quality and professionalism as a means of attracting employers to cover the costs. Since its founding, FEA has become the largest migrant worker recruiter in the country, taking 5% of the market share. Scott is now focused on building a recruitment agency in Manila to tackle the migrant labor problem at its source.

In Singapore, foreigners, including both expatriates and domestic workers, make up 40% of the labor force, from Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Indonesia are mainly employed in construction, manufacturing and shipping and are in the country with 8-10-year legal work passes. Despite having legal status, they tend to live on the margins of Singaporean society, in substandard housing and without access to education or other tools to improve their skills or knowledge.

 Sazzad Hossain developed the Social Development Initiative, or SDI Academy, to help migrants and refugees improve their personal development during the time they spend in the country. The academy focuses on English language acquisition, IT and computer literacy, and entrepreneurship training that makes them more efficient and productive workers and equips them with skills to take back to their countries of origin. Since 2013, over 7,500 students have been trained and more than 120,000 people have been engaged in building out more supportive ecosystems for workers to thrive in Singapore and beyond. Sazzad is working with accelerators in Bangladesh to promote entrepreneurship for returnees.

Democratizing labor rights

The rise of new forms of labor and disruptive industries has led to a decline in traditional labor protection systems worldwide. This problem has been especially acute in the United States where organized labor has been drastically weakened as gig economies take hold.

 Michelle Miller is solving this problem with her organization Coworker.org which empowers any worker to be able to advocate for improved working conditions and wages. The platform enables workers to start campaigns to advocate for changes in their workplace. Employees can join together and win change for themselves and others. Since its inception, worker-led victories have included expanded family paid leave at Starbucks, in-app tipping with Uber, a wage increase for REI employees and the elimination of product sales goals at Wells Fargo.

In Bangladesh, Nazma Akhter is democratizing the fight for labor rights with the Awaj Foundation, which catalyzes women-led organizations to address issues in the ready-made garments industry.

The sector accounts for 20% of Bangladesh’s GDP, but is also home to disparaging working conditions, weak labor laws and human rights violations. Garment industry trade unions began to organize in the 1980s, but the leadership in these organization did not represent women who make up the majority of workers in the sector. Nazma has taken a holistic approach to encourage women-led change in the field of labor rights. Workers’ cafes provide women with legal aid and health services trainings, train workers and managers on legal rights and responsibilities, and build coalitions between factory workers, owners and the government to advocate for workers’ rights. Awaj Foundation is the largest provider of legal aid in the country and has helped over 16,000 individuals access support.

Maintaining tradition for economic vitality

Dinny Jusuf is working on the other end of international labor migration, revitalizing a traditional industry to en- able potential migrants to have economic opportunity at home in Indonesia. Driven by poverty and limited economic opportunities, 9 million Indonesians work overseas; 67% of them are women[15].

Dinny’s organization Toraja Melo is tacking this out-flow by revitalizing the market for traditional weaving. By working alongside fashion consultants in Jakarta to market the product, Dinny has organized women’s cooperatives in four locations in the countryside where women engage in peer-to-peer support and learning. 1,000 women across these locations have joined Toraja Melo and some are even returnees from domestic work abroad. Weavers have seen 200-300% increases in income. Combined with community-based tourism and other models of economic empowerment, Toraja Melo plans to expand by five-fold over the coming year.

Similarly, Dan Driscoll knows that tradition can bring modern solutions to economic inequality. The artisan sector in Morocco has seen a steady decline in participation, with an average 17% dropping out each year – from 1.1 million artisans in 2007 to just 300,000 artisans in 2016.

The decline in participation in the artisan sector does not match the demand for hand-made Moroccan products. The discrepancy can be explained mainly as the result of deep-rooted and legalized middleman exploitation where brokers often keep 96% of the final price – a reality which has been supported by unfair legislation that made it illegal for an artisan to sell products internationally on their own. Dan’s solution has been to dismantle these structural barriers through technology (a platform for artisans’ work), policy changes and advocacy, cooperative restructuring and supply change reform. The company, Anou, is artisan-led, linked by technology, engages in collective bargaining, and drives changes in legislation and middle-men negotiations. They have a network of 70 cooperatives, 600 artisans, see annual sales over 2 million Moroccan Dirhams, and control 2.5% of Moroccan exports to the United States.


Make retail work aspirational

India is a country of shopkeepers: retail is the second biggest industry in the country after agriculture. As an industry of $1.3 billion, it is one of the largest in the world. Despite this, working in the retail sector is often cast as a low-wage, undesirable position. It has been stigmatized as a job for desperate, uneducated and unskilled members of society. In this environment, retail owners have not had many incentives to upskill or create pathways for advancement for their workers.

B. S. Nagesh

Ashoka Fellow since Mar 2019

 B.S. Nagesh had an early passion for retail management. With new technology and improved systems and processes, Nagesh built one of India’s largest retail conglomerate, Shoppers Stop, and founded the professional Retail Association of India. At the height of all his success, he was troubled by the opportunities available for workers. He founded TRRAIN (Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India) to change mindsets nationally and to create professions rather than jobs. The “Retail Employees’ Day” celebrates retail employees and their contributions and annually holds Retail Awards where CEOs of India’s biggest retailers, along with celebrities and media, share in the stories of service. He is spreading his Pride-Respect-Inclusion-Skill model and hundreds of retailers across the country are seeing the business sense in lifting up retail associates.


Why work with one social entrepreneur when you can bring together many? Ashoka’s Venture program finds and identifies social entrepreneurs around the world to help them achieve their vision for systemic change, Ashoka’s Fellowship program connects Fellows within countries, regions and across the globe – for peer support, for ideas exchange, and for collaborative enterprise. In 2019, fellowship events around the globe included the European Changemaker Summit in Barcelona where 50 fellows from across Europe connected, celebrated, learned and collaborated with 1500 participants. Partnerships with Google, BMW Foundation, Boehringer Ingelheim, Glovo, Sage Foundation, Danone and Caixa Bank enabled the multi-perspective, multi-day event. In Nairobi, Fellows from across the continent met for two days of collaboration and leadership in partnership with the British Council and supported by Boehringer Ingelheim, Mars Wrigley, CTA, UNDP, and Thomson Reuters. Across the United States, Fellows embarked on a Welcome Change tour with themed events in five cities, where they met and helped to give context to issues like legal innovation, building changemaker movements, racial healing, rural innovation and climate change. Connecting Fellows to each other to expand their opportunities is core to Ashoka’s vision.

[12] International Labour Office. World employment and social outlook: trends 2019. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2019.

[13] ILO Global Estimates on International Migrant Workers – Results and Methodology (December 2018) - World. International Labour Organization, Dec. 2018.

[14] “Coming Clean Report.” Justice Centre Hong Kong, Mar. 2016.

[15] Missbach, A. (2018). Indonesia: A country grappling with migrant protection at home and abroad. Migration Information Source. September 19, 2018.

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