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Could a fintech app give migrant workers more control over their lives and money?

July 16, 2021, 1:05 PM UTC
Advocates for female migrant workers say the existing financial apps don't meet their needs.
Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The share of women working at Facebook declined this year, Netflix cracks down on employee complaints, and we gain a window into how the pandemic has impacted female migrant workers. Have a relaxing weekend.

– There’s no app for that. While you’ve probably read quite a bit about how the pandemic has altered life for working women, here’s one segment of that population you may not have heard quite as much about: migrant workers.

The harm COVID-19 inflicted on female migrants—many of them employed as domestic workers—and the extended families they support with the money they send home is the subject of Fortune’s first-ever collaboration with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom devoted to reporting on women. In this story, published by Fortune this week, The Fuller Project’s Louise Donovan reports on how the pandemic further destabilized the already perilous position of these women, as their employers limited their movements and, in some cases, took advantage of the isolation to exert more control over workers and their finances.

The damage goes far beyond the workers themselves.

Historically, most migrant workers are paid in cash and any remittances they send home go through brick-and-mortar money-transfer agencies. Donovan reports that migrant workers sent $554 billion back to their countries of origin in 2019. About half of those remittances come from female workers. (Notably, women as a whole pay more fees on the money they send home, since they tend to send more frequent, yet smaller, payments).

When pandemic lockdowns ended such in-person transactions, many migrants turned to digital apps to keep the funds flowing. But that wasn’t always an option for female domestic workers, who tend to have far less access to such digital tools than male migrant workers. The reasons for this disparity range from lack of access to mobile phones and bank accounts, to fewer opportunities to hear about such services, since they spend much of their time confined to employers’ homes where they are unlikely to get word-of-mouth recommendations from other workers.

For the most part, the money-transfer sector has yet to develop digital options capable of reaching and serving these female workers, Donovan finds. One possible model for the future, which is being built with support from the United Nations Capital Development Fund, is WeLucy, an app that will debut in Singapore next month. It’s too soon to know if the product will find an audience with domestic and other migrant workers, but the services it offers—low-cost digital remittances, zero-interest salary advances, tracking of loans between employers and employees—are promising. If WeLucy gets traction, perhaps the big players in the money-transfer world will take note.

To learn more about what the pandemic has been like for female migrant workers, I hope you’ll read Donovan’s story here.

Kristen Bellstrom

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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