Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Researching Labour Mobility in Digital Times



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Moritz Altenried, Manuela Bojadžijev, and Mira Wallis. Moritz, Manuela and Mira just started a research project titled ‘Digitisation of Labour: Configurations of virtual and real migration’, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and based at Leuphana University’s Centre for Digital Cultures (CDC) in Lüneburg. Manuela is professor for Globalised Culture at Leuphana University and the Vice-Director of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at Humboldt University of Berlin. Mira is a research associate at CDC and doctoral student at Leuphana University. Moritz is a postdoctoral researcher at Leuphana’s CDC. Together with Sandro Mezzadra and Leif Höfler they published in 2017 “Logistische Grenzlandschaften. Das Regime mobiler Arbeit nach dem ‘Sommer der Migration’”. This is the second post of Border Criminologies’ themed series ‘Migrant Digitalities and the Politics of Dispersal’, organised by Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli.

Two concepts, immigration and emigration, have long been commonly used to describe the physical movement of people between countries. ‘To come’ and ‘to go’ described the related praxis of mobility, which has been imagined as a temporary moment, the exception to sedentariness. Migration policies are still designed to strictly regulate human mobility in line with this paradigm that migration is an exception, and according to the logics of the ‘nation form’ of the state, as Etienne Balibar coined it. Yet, the most common term used today is migration which does not invoke the image of a one-directional movement from anywhere to somewhere else but rather it opens up the possibility of multi-directional forms of human mobility. Labour and life are permeated by mobile praxis, which today are recomposing spaces of belonging, and meanings of distance and proximity.

Today, however, this state of affairs is utterly unimaginable without the digitalisation of our everyday lives. Digital cultures have become almost ubiquitous in migration matters: be it the determination of escape routes by GPS, the continuous contact with friends and family left behind through social media, the biometric apparatuses of border controls, and so forth. Digitalisation profoundly conditions, produces and structures the modes of our mobility. What keeps us in place and what drives us away is digitally mediated. While the connection between digitalisation and migration is eminent, the various practices, modes and manifold appearances of how they are related has been the subject of relatively little attention so far.

If we assume that digitalisation concerns all aspects of life and labour, then it certainly also relates to how populations are and will be mobilised. If digital technology is important to almost every aspect of migratory practices, forms of capture and struggle, one important question to us remains the mobility of labour. Digitalisation is profoundly changing labour relations and patterns of mobility in complex and interrelated ways. As we have discussed elsewhere, this concerns not only new geographies of production enabled by digital technology but also the recomposition of (mobile) labour and new configurations of racism.

In order to learn more about migration in the digital age, our current research project takes a closer look at how the digitalisation of labour changes mobility patterns – and vice versa. It researches globally distributed digital labour on crowdworking platforms and digitised labour on the ‘last mile’ of parcel and delivery services. In both fields, platform-driven digitisation changes labour; not only through flexibilization and algorithmic management, but also in terms of the mobility requirements faced by workers. Crowdworking platforms allow the distribution of digital labour down to the personal computers and smartphones of people working from their private homes or internet cafes. Here, an increasing number of digital workers from the Global South works for corporations and employers predominantly situated in the Global North. In the cities of the Global North, on the other hand, the economic importance of ‘last mile’ delivery services has increased enormously due to online retail and platforms, while requiring place-bound forms of digitised laobour that are also connected to new mobility practices. Here, a high number of ‘real life migrants’ are employed, whose flexible mobility practices correspond with the requirements of labour.


A demand-oriented, flexible and just-in-time allocation of labour is characteristic of both fields – and it corresponds to certain forms of hyper-flexible and digital mobility. This small excerpt from the world of platform-driven labour shows how processes of digitisation produce and reconfigure heterogenous mobility practices which are increasingly flexible, differentiated and temporalized.

Digital labour has demonstrated how we work together in new ways for quite some time now. Corporate work can take place in the same building or in different sides of the globe. Digital labour seeks out ever new sites and fosters new connections. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is actually moving: data, labour or both? Often – and somewhat unsatisfactorily – described as digital offshoring, we, in fact, currently observe a massive migration of labour without the migration of workers. Our project seeks to understand how digital technologies and infrastructures entail spatial and temporal transformations affecting the mobility of labour as a whole.

Some years ago, two ethnographies of Indian IT workers cut an important new angle for studying the relation between labour and migration in the digital age. Anthropologist Xiang Biao studied the so-called ‘body shopping’, which refers to companies hiring out hyper-mobilised and hyper-flexibilised IT workers to Western firms. He draws connections and routes between four continents by following the industry’s migrant labour, and explores how social relations, i.e. gender relations and kinship bonds, change at the local level. Aneesh Aneesh’s ethnography investigates Indian IT workers whose labour largely takes place in India, but whose employers are Western companies. What is striking in Aneesh’s investigation is how mobile data and mobile labour become conflated. Aneesh coins the term ‘virtual migration’ in order to ‘free the discussion of labour mobility from the confines of the body’. He argues that workers who live and work in India for American companies ultimately ‘migrate without migration’. While they physically remain in their home countries, they become subject to various legal and cultural frameworks of other countries.

Ten years after the path-breaking investigations by Biao and Aneesh, mobile devices make the immediate outsourcing of labour even more diversified as new hot spots emerge beyond the well-known locations in South East Asia. Digital technology continues to reconfigure labour mobility in manifold ways. Several simple, provocative questions may help to outline what we aim to explore: if work can be conducted digitally in one location where the labouring body does not necessarily have to move or cross physical borders – will this, in the future, be viewed as labour migration? Will living in a particular country become less relevant to finding a job more easily? Or will it be more relevant to be somewhere with access to a stable and secure internet connection? And when a large portion of work is automated, can we then work less? And will we be mobile in different ways? What happens to citizenship rights – and thus labour rights – when nationals move within the space of the internet, and not only for work reasons? How do they connect to mobility rights? What legal entitlements do they enjoy? Are they altered when our physical bodies do not move? Who grants these in the first place? We can also assume that new frictions will emerge: for example, how we struggle across space and borders for better working conditions, or how we organise against different wages for the same type of work performed in different places. But maybe even more importantly: if labour is no longer territorially grounded, that is to say if labour cannot be localised in one defined site but rather moves and is performed between sites, will we thus all become migrants?

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Altenried, M., Bojadžijev, M. and Wallis, M. (2018) Researching Labour Mobility in Digital Times. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/05/researching (Accessed [date]).

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