Migrant Tech: Exploring the Use of Technology by Migrant Workers

This research focuses on the use of technology by low skilled and semi skilled workers. By drawing from findings of a number of case and design studies, it analyzes how migrants can use technology to empower their situated agency and enable them to enhance their conditions.

Each year four million people migrate across national boundaries, with an estimated total migrant population of 244 million worldwide. When considering internal migration, scholars estimate that there are 740 million internal migrants, with large proportions of these moving from rural to urban areas.

The project consists of two phases. In the first phase, we undertake a series of case and design studies with four different populations of migrants:

  • Dual migrant workers in the construction and hospitality fields. This project aims to identify the perceived affordance of social media, in particular WeChat, for dual migrants who have first migrated from rural China to border towns, and then cross borders daily for work.
  • Migrant workers who faced abuse and exploitation from recruitment agencies. There are a number of different platforms that have been developed, to allow migrant workers to access information about their labour rights, and to give them a chance to report cases of abuse and exploitation. This study aims to understand if migrant workers would use technology to report cases of abuse and exploitation.
  • North Korean female defectors in South Korea. About 30,000 North Korean defectors entered South Korea, making a dramatic transition from the most digitally oppressed country to one of the most digitally connected countries. This project aims to understand what the role is of mobile phones in the struggles and negotiation by North Korea women defectors during their migration journey and resettlement in South Korea.
  • Self identification of victims of human trafficking. This case and design study aims to understand how technology can be used by victims of human trafficking to self identify and seek help from front line responders (police, NGOs, labour inspectors). As an initial pilot, it focuses on using the technology within Thailand.

Phase two of this project proposes the use of Critical Capability Approach of Technology, which combines together the strengths of the capabilities approach and the rich theoretical grounding of critical theory for understanding the enabling and constraining factors of human agency. Our four case and design studies represent different points on this continuum, with the aim to understand how technology can be used to empower migrants situated agency and enable them to enhance their conditions.

Across our project, the methodology contributes a number of different features:

  • The importance of participation from early on, to understand community’s needs and goals through a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. This mixed method approach has been shown to improve trustworthiness, reliability and transferability of results.
  • Grounded theory to code, review and develop codes that reflect the insights gained from the community.
  • Critical theory to encourage a reflection on existing power structures, and then to conceptualize ways that technology can be used to enhance people’s capabilities.
  • The involvement of community members, using a participatory design approach to any ICT interventions.
  • The involvement of participants in evaluation of any interventions, to ensure that evaluations are primarily concerned with advancing agency freedoms (rather than evaluating against researcher-implied benchmarks).

Migrant Worker, Critical Capability Approach of Technology, Mobile Phone

Hannah Thinyane, Jenny Ju, Karthik Bhat

Click here to download a short document with research details about the project.


This project is part of the Digital Peace Lab and the Gender Tech Lab.
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