Europe’s refugee crisis is proving all but impossible for the region’s politicians to tackle without being sucked into an inglorious mire of prejudice — leaving desperate people fleeing conflict-torn countries to be shunted towards the margins or even sent back to the places they were fleeing in the first place.
In just one example this week Austria’s defense minister suggested the country will deploy troops at its border with Italy, stepping up border controls to try to prevent more people from entering. But while politicians feel the need to pander to fear of migration, startups have the chance to do something both positive and practical — by using technology tools to overcome some of the challenges faced by outsiders quickly needing to orient to a new life.
One such startup is Austria-based online jobs platform Refugees Work, which was founded back in November and soft launched around two weeks ago — taking registrations from employers wanting to hire refugees and refugees wanting to find local work. Founder Dominik Beron says it has registered more than 130 employers so far, and has around 1,000 refugees signed up to create a jobs profile to look for work.
The platform is not actively doing any jobs matching yet but he tells TechCrunch it will switching this on in three weeks, using an algorithm to link refugees with potential jobs based on four factors: their background skills, language, place of residence, and the specific legal environment of an individual’s work status.
Beron professes some surprise at how quickly employers have signed up at this nascent stage, saying the original target was to on-board 400 employers in 2016. As it turns out they’ve managed more than a quarter of that in just a couple of weeks — with 50 signing up after just one day. They have also initially been focusing on registering refugees but will now be pushing the b2b sales side specifically so are presumably hoping to maintain or even accelerate employer sign-up momentum from here on in.
While he says many employers are seeking low qualification workers or hoping to fill positions they find it hard to source staff for locally, such as jobs in gastronomy and hotels, others are looking for more specialized skills, such as in academia, or are aiming to boost the diversity of their own workplace.
“We have companies who are looking to create a very special organizational structure such as companies who also have a high value for diversity and values like that, particularly international companies,” says Beron.
One big blocker to refugees being hired is the complexity of the local legal environment vis-a-vis their work status, with companies not knowing how or even whether they can employee people. The platform aims to help with this by being a resource for relevant legal information, and by incorporating the work status of each individual into its jobs matching algorithm — so an employer shouldn’t be matched with a person they cannot legally employ.
Another area the tech aims to help with is with integrating refugees into an existing workplace by offering resources to help with cultural fit issues or other integration-related concerns that employers may have and which might be preventing them from actively seeking to employee refugees, says Beron.
“Technology… can be the perfect link connecting these two words,” he argues. “Primarily the biggest advantage [of using technology tools to help refugees] is scalability. Because they can register, they can use Facebook sign in… we easily match them so we make something possible that would not be possible on an offline basis.”
One specific feature he cites as a useful bridging tech is an embedded messaging plus calendar tool that’s being built into the platform — offering an easy channel for refugees and employers to reach each other.
“Refugees are communicating on Facebook and WhatsApp and companies are communicating on email. So what we can do about this is we will make a chat with an integrated calendar that helps to create the universal channel for communication on our platform. It also helps us to know when refugees and companies meet so that we can support automated features by, for instance, sending refugees more information on how to behave in interviews,” he adds.
How has the startup been getting the word out about its platform to refugees who Beron notes are typically rather hard to reach by traditional media channels or mainstream social media? By partnering with local NGOs, going to refugee camps and by running free workshops for refugees on legal issues.
After that awareness has been spreading by word of mouth via refugees’ own social networks. “Refugees are not very well connected to our society but they are very well connected to each other,” adds Beron.
Last year in Austria alone some 90,000 refugees arrived; Beron says it’s expected around 70,000 of those will remain in the country. Currently there are around 30,000 refugees with free access to the local labor market by his reckoning, with the rest being restricted to only certain kinds of employment as their asylum applications are processed.
While RefugeesWork.at is clearly a social enterprise, it is also a traditional startup in the sense that Beron has ambitions to scale it into a sustainable company in its own right. And while he says he initially wanted to gift the code to an NGO he couldn’t find any willing to take on the project — so decided to build it into a business himself.
“The problem is capacity… NGOs do not have either the personnel resources — so people who are experienced in building a platform or something like this — but also time. They were all busy transferring goods and donations in goods and donations in cash to refugees so they had no resources to implement such a project.”
The business model involves charging employers a subscription fee for access to the platform, with the amount being charged varying depending on the size of the employer. For larger employers the fee starts at €500 per year.
Beron, who is a lawyer by training, had previously founded another social enterprise startup — a not-for-profit platform aiming to connect social enterprises/NGOs with companies to get free services (such as making websites) — and it was while working on that that he came up with the idea for Refugees Work after being approached by a company wanting to employee a refugee but not knowing how to go about doing so.
“They were looking for a lawyer who could help,” he says. “That was the first contact with the whole topic of labour market integration of refugees.”
The startup has taken in $10,000 via a successful crowdfunding campaign to get its platform this far but Beron says it’s now actively looking for investors and is hoping to close a seed round soon.
It is also working on the first co-operation outside Austria, with a plan to scale to other European markets in time. Although Beron notes this need to be done on a social franchise basis because of the need to partner with local NGOs in order to reach the target pool of refugees.