Michael Levitin reports on how organisations like the Tent Partnership for Refugees are proving that employing refugees is good for business

On World Refugee Day in June, the Tent Partnership for Refugees released a study showing that 44% of consumers in Italy, France and Germany were more likely to buy products and services from companies that hire or help refugees, compared with 14% who said they would be less likely to do so.

Among millennials, aged 18-35, a whopping 77% favoured pro-refugee brands.

The study mirrored similar findings in America and confirmed what has become increasingly clear to businesses around the world: hiring refugees not only diversifies and strengthens a company’s workforce, but creates greater brand loyalty in an era when consumers want to see businesses acting as a force for good.

The private sector has an enormous capacity to empower refugees as full participants in the global economy

Tülin Erdem, chair of New York University Stern’s marketing department and co-author of the Tent report, said the results demonstrated “that brands can simultaneously do good for the world around them and do well by attracting a new generation of customers.”

Meanwhile, the International Chamber of Commerce marked World Refugee Day by launching a partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and issuing a call for companies to hire greater numbers of refugees, who now number 70 million worldwide. Last year alone, 2 million people were displaced from their homes, and around 28,000 are still forced to flee on a daily basis due to persecution, conflict and natural disasters.

“The private sector has an enormous capacity to empower refugees as full participants in the global economy,” the ICC said in a statement. “As economic actors, policy influencers, employers and innovators, business has the tools and capacity to contribute to win-win solutions that support the integration of refugees into the workforce and bring value to society as a whole.”

Turkey is home to 4m refugees fleeing the war in Syria. (Credit: Orlok/Shutterstock)

The global refugee crisis isn’t new, but more companies are now recognising the enormous economic potential of bringing refugees into their supply chain. A report published in April by the Centre for Policy Development and the Open Political Economy Network looked at refugee employment in Australia and found that the yearly addition of 1,000 refugee-owned businesses in the country would generate $100m annually.

Another recent study, by the Brookings Institution, found that Syrians living in Turkey now own more than 10,000 businesses, employing around 10 people on average.

Of all the companies helping and hiring refugees, none has drawn more attention than the best-selling yogurt brand Chobani. Its billionaire CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, was raised by nomadic sheep farmers in the mountains of Turkey and came to America in 1994. A decade later, he founded the yogurt business in upstate New York that today employs more than 2,000 people.

Refugees are dying to provide for their community. I always said that the minute they got the job, that's the minute they stopped being refugees

Ulukaya not only pays his factory floor workers twice the federal minimum wage, but was determined from the start to bring refugees into the production process. Hiring them wasn’t a political act, he said in a recent interview with Inc, but simply part of the business model, and one that proved an overwhelming success.

“At Chobani today, 30% of our employees are immigrants or refugees. More than 20 languages are spoken at our plants. This was not about politics; this wasn't my refugee work. This was about hiring from our community. Refugees are dying to provide for their community. I always said that the minute they got the job, that's the minute they stopped being refugees.”

In 2016, Ulukaya founded Tent, which has since worked with companies and organisations worldwide providing living and workplace opportunities for asylum seekers.

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Tent, with refugee workers in Jordan. (Credit: Tent)

Gideon Maltz, the executive director of Tent, said in an interview with Ethical Corporation that Tent’s goal is to integrate refugees into the business community by showing companies the “comparative advantage” of hiring a more diverse workforce.

Refugees independently have high rates of entrepreneurship. But as employees they bring a distinct strength to firms. For one, they help make the workforce more inclusive and diverse.

Refugees also have higher company loyalty and retention rates than average employees. According to one Tent survey, nearly three-quarters of US companies experience lower turnovers for refugee employees.

Companies from many sectors are finding ways to integrate refugees into their workforces, or to directly support refugee-owned businesses

He said companies from many sectors – banking and energy, telecommunications and retail – are finding ways to integrate refugees into their workforces, or to directly support refugee-owned businesses, with encouraging results.

The global ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, for example, is supporting around 500 refugees, both employing them as ice cream sellers and supporting their entrepreneurial efforts to start their own businesses.

In Brazil, Uber Eats, a food delivery platform hosted by the car-sharing service Uber, is helping steer customers to diverse refugee-owned food businesses.

The oil giant Shell is attempting to improve energy access to refugees, while the French company Tedesco has committed to hiring more refugees for catering and cleaning services.

Brands like Hilton and AccorHotels have increased their number of refugee hires. Starbucks has committed to employing 10,000 refugees worldwide, and the tech company Dropbox has announced plans to support refugee job seekers.

Amid Syria’s ongoing civil war, Turkey has become the country hardest hit by the influx of refugees. It is home to 4 million refugees, the most on the planet. To that end, the Dutch bank ING is providing over $10m in loans to refugees to help them grow small businesses in Turkey. Puma, which has numerous factories in the country, is now seeking to fill between 2% and 3% of its workforce with refugees, while clothing giants like H&M and Inditex are both stepping up their refugee hiring in the manufacture process.

It’s not about giving away money: it’s about making products that people will like

Meanwhile, IKEA Group, operating in nearby Jordan, is hiring refugee women to produce artisanal goods – think embroidered pillowcases – that the company then sells around the world.

“If you’re a businesses in any of the major Turkish cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, you can’t ignore that there are literally millions of refugees, and you need to make a decision to either proactively work with them and hire them or, what often happens, [leave them] without access to decent jobs,” said Maltz

He said companies like IKEA, H&M and others “are trying to bring refugees into their supply chains and into the products that they make and sell in their stores. It’s not about giving away money: it’s about making products that people will like.”

More companies are recognising the economic potential of employing refugees. (Credit: Tent)

Employing another corporate strategy to help refugees, Canadian retail banks TD Bank and Royal Bank of Canada have led the way by making it easier for refugees to open bank accounts.

TD Bank has a special package that enables refugees to set up checking accounts with no fees during initial months, and to gain access to credit more easily. “For someone arriving for the first time in Canada there can be obstacles, so banks are going out of their way to make it as easy and cheap as possible,” said Maltz, whose organisation is trying to get other banks elsewhere to follow the model. It’s smart business, he added, because “it helps bring in refugees as customers who will probably be loyal to these banks.”

Still, he says, there are challenges that need to be overcome, including misconceptions in the business sector not only about what refugees need, but what they offer companies in return.

If the big clothing brands got together and said ‘We care about this’ it would significantly increase the potential for the government to change

“People think about refugees as a population that needs to flee, then goes back [home] in a few months,” said Maltz. But one out of every two refugees is expected to remain displaced for more than 20 years. “That long-term displacement is the most devastating aspect of the crisis, and the one the NGOs are less well positioned to address by themselves,” he added. “That’s the area where businesses have the most vital role to play.”

He points out that as more asylum-seekers head to middle- and low-income countries, global companies operating in those countries are perhaps best situated to help those refugees.

However, one big barrier is the fact that some of those countries, including Bangladesh, Kenya and Malaysia, have laws prohibiting refugees from working. This makes it difficult for asylum-seekers to find jobs, even when foreign companies want to hire them. In Bangladesh, for example, which has around 1 million refugees, “we definitely know about businesses that want to help refugees, but the law says refugees aren’t allowed to work, so we’re making an effort to see if we can bring the business voice into that discussion,” said Maltz.

Lenders, including ING bank, are providing loans to refugees to start businesses. (Credit: Tent)

“If the big clothing brands got together and said to the government: ‘We care about this, this is important to us,’ I think it would significantly increase the potential for the government to change,” he said. “Brands have huge power. We think this is an area where it certainly has a huge impact for refugees, but is also good for the brand.”

A lobbying effort succeeded in Turkey several years ago, when clothing companies took the lead in pressing Turkey’s government to allow refugees to work. Tent hopes to do the same in Malaysia, which has around 150,000 refugees, yet is suffering a shortage of workers due to its strict legislation outlawing refugee employment.

The organisation has teamed up with multinationals and local businesses making the humanitarian and economic case, said Maltz, “helping them understand the facts and encouraging leading companies to go and communicate with the government” to change the law.

Each company that makes a public announcement endorsing refugees without any backlash helps improve the climate for other businesses

There is also another challenge, which is arguably the elephant in the room: overcoming the public’s anxiety about refugees. With rising tensions over immigration dominating politics on both sides of the Atlantic, many companies fear that hiring refugees could spark a negative response from consumers. But based on Tent’s work – and its own commissioned studies to measure customer reactions –Maltz says those fears are largely unfounded.

“There’s a deeply held anxiety because of the politics around this, but in our experience we’ve found it’s very possible for companies to be engaged on this issue publicly, and that actually it builds consumer support.”

“Each company that comes forward and makes a public announcement [endorsing refugees] without any backlash helps improve the climate for other businesses following through,” he said.

Refugees are good for business; 70% of millennials favour pro-refugee brands. (Credit: olesea vetrila/Shuttestock)

Maltz say the trend is clear: refugees are good for business not only because of the skills, diversity and reliability they bring, but also because more consumers are supporting the businesses that hire them.

“Consumers want to buy from companies that are taking a stand on social issues and that are living their values. [In the case of] Chobani, they believe customers aren’t just buying yogurt: they’re buying the story behind the yogurt. That’s Chobani’s story: hiring refugees.”

Michael Levitin is a journalist based in Berkeley, California, covering climate and clean energy financing among other topics. He has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Time and Newsweek.

Main picture credit: Tent Partnership for Refugees


This article is part of the in-depth Human Rights briefing. See also:

‘We know most global companies have modern slavery in their supply chains’

‘Even leading supermarkets are far from ending human rights abuses in their supply chains’

‘The risk of worker exploitation is as high in Leicester as in Turkey or Bangladesh’

‘If Boris Johnson wants a global Britain he needs to get serious about ending modern slavery’

How Slavefreetrade is using blockchain to shine a light on the good guys

How AB Sugar is helping smallholder farmers in Africa secure land rights

'If there is to be a just low-carbon transition companies can't ignore their workers'

‘Do we need a Paris Agreement on social issues to get companies to take them seriously?’

ABN Amro gets to grips with salience in second human rights report

From Untouchables to plastic waste entrepreneurs

How Airbnb and WeWork are opening new doors to refugees


Tent Partnership for Refugees  Chobani  UNHCR  Hamdi Ulukay  Ben & Jerry's  Uber EAts  ING  H&M  Ikea 

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