Workplace

Could remote work give climate migrants and refugees economic stability?

New startup Sora Union began by hiring Ukrainian workers but plans to target displaced people across the globe.

Cities connected with lines on a blue globe.

“If a large number of people can work from anywhere and do very valuable work, why not hire many of those people that are at danger or at risk of being displaced because of climate change, because of war?” said Phil Libin, founder of All Turtles.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images Plus

Taking in the Ozarks at the Crystal Bridges museum last fall, Nate Dalton and Phil Libin started riffing on the power of remote work. The conversation led to an aha moment: What if they used remote work to help the millions of people displaced by climate change and other disasters?

Libin, former Evernote CEO and founder of startup studio All Turtles, is a major cheerleader for remote work, supporting it through his video startup mmhmm. Dalton, formerly with the Affiliated Managers Group, is passionate about tackling the climate crisis. As many as 1.2 billion people could be displaced due to climate change by 2050, the 2020 Ecological Threat Register predicted. Violence and human rights violations displaced more than 100 million people worldwide in the first few months of 2022, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Plenty of Western companies hire people from across the world. But often they’re taking advantage of cheap local wages or only offering gig work. They’re not focused on hiring people living in active war zones or in countries barraged by floods. Dalton and Libin wanted to find exactly those people and pay them based on a global, standardized rate.

“If a large number of people can work from anywhere and do very valuable work, why not hire many of those people that are at danger or at risk of being displaced because of climate change, because of war?” Libin said.

This idea became the basis of Sora Union, a new startup from All Turtles. Sora means “sky” in Japanese, and “union” is meant to signify togetherness (Sora is not a labor union). Dalton wasn’t planning on launching for a while. But the founders decided to kick off Sora Union in March after Russia invaded Ukraine, focusing on hiring Ukrainian workers. They’ve started to expand to other populations as well, with workers in Brazil, Egypt and Nigeria, for example. So far, Sora Union offers two services for companies: localization, translating materials for companies looking to enter that country’s market, and design, which speaks for itself. Design pricing starts at $65 per hour. Sora’s leaders are also hoping to upskill their employees through English classes and other technical courses, paving the way for more customers.

“People either move with economics or without economics, and it’s a hell of a lot easier if they move with stable revenue,” Dalton said.

Sophia Wajnert, co-founder and chief people officer at Sora, declined to offer the specific salary, but said Sora pays all employees the same monthly rate, regardless of location or the client contracts that come in. Rafael Gomez, a labor economics professor at the University of Toronto, cautioned that this model doesn’t always make sense, as costs of living and circumstances can be drastically different from place to place. But in Sora Union’s vision, workers are likely to be truly mobile, and so salary tied to a specific place doesn’t make sense.

“If you move from Ukraine to Moldova to Poland to Ukraine, why should your compensation change?” Dalton said. “You're doing the same work. It has the same value.”

Maryna Rakovska, a brand designer in Kyiv, was one of Sora Union’s early hires. She worked as an English teacher before the war, but her employer couldn’t afford to pay her once the war started. She had been taking UX/UI design courses while teaching, so she began looking for designer jobs. Sora Union reached out to her on Hire for Ukraine.

“Work is the one thing that makes me forget about the war,” Rakovska wrote in an email to Protocol. “My life is regular, like everybody else's: I go to supermarkets, meet my friends on the weekends and so on (Kyiv is give or take safe place). The only thing that is different — air raid alerts every day.”

The type of work Sora Union offers isn’t novel. Neither is the recruiting strategy. Sora is recruiting the same as any other company, going on the offensive across multiple job platforms. The difference is their target hires are in places most companies tend to overlook for full-time, remote jobs. Wajnert said she’s hired 20 people across 11 countries so far: Ukraine, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, China, Austria, Poland and Moldova. It’s early days, but already she says she’s seeing diversity in action.

“We’ve heard all sorts of times that diversity at the table creates better outcomes and decisions,” Wajnert said. “We are bringing people to the table with the wealth of their experiences.”

Hiring international labor is politically controversial in the U.S., but experts told Protocol they don’t see how governments could stop the growth of international, remote workforces. Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, helped coin the term “work from anywhere.” He studied MobSquad, a company launched in 2018 that helped specialized workers who had been denied H-1B visas in the U.S. move to Canada, and then connected these workers with American tech startups.

“Companies are going to be driven by economic incentives, and this is just a new form of organizing labor,” Choudhury said.

“If a large number of people can work from anywhere and do very valuable work, why not hire many of those people that are at danger or at risk of being displaced because of climate change, because of war?”

Gomez worked with the Canadian government on the question of remote, global labor over a decade ago. “Telework” was the preferred term at the time, and it was already gaining traction. But the pandemic hastened the process and made the controversial aspects around remote work more urgent. Should companies adopt geoneutral pay or pay based on cost of living? Where should remote workers pay taxes? The work-from-anywhere labor model will greatly shape where people live. In some places, it already is. Especially with climate change rendering certain parts of the world unlivable, the global distribution of people will change substantially. Our social and political structures will have to change with it.

“There’s catching up to do from governments to realize what’s going on,” Gomez said. “We could have a company that’s headquartered in one city and has no employees in that city and paying no taxes to that region.”

Gomez said if Sora finds success competing with other design/localization agencies, perhaps its model will spread. The amount of digitally savvy people, and therefore potential talent, is growing worldwide, Gomez said.

“The number of people who are potential candidates for this kind of work, because of their exposure to technologies that allow this kind of remote work, is growing,” Gomez said.

There are charitable organizations pairing displaced people with remote work, like Jobs for Humanity. But Dalton specified that Sora Union is not at all a charitable endeavor; it’s a business with high-quality talent. Sora’s leaders know they can’t singlehandedly solve the displacement crisis, but they want companies to recognize the wealth of talent across the globe.

“There’s so much talent in all these places,” Dalton said. “Before, you weren’t able to attach them to this opportunity because you actually did need to get them to a meeting. But now, all those people can contribute.”


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