Digital Circulation

Reconfigurations of Labour and Migration

Digitisation is profoundly changing the world of labour. An important, if often overlooked aspect of this transformation concerns the impact on mobility and migration. Digitisation is changing labour relations and patterns of mobility in complex and interrelated ways involving not only new geographies of production enabled by digital technology but also the recomposition of (mobile) labour and new configurations of racism. The rise of digital platforms is a crucial part of this development: from online retail, over taxi and food delivery services, through to crowdworking platforms for digital labour.

Photo: Markus Kostner / World Bank

Digitisation is profoundly changing the world of labour. An important, if often overlooked aspect of this transformation concerns the impact on mobility and migration. Digitisation is changing labour relations and patterns of mobility in complex and interrelated ways involving not only new geographies of production enabled by digital technology but also the recomposition of (mobile) labour and new configurations of racism. The rise of digital platforms is a crucial part of this development: from online retail, over taxi and food delivery services, through to crowdworking platforms for digital labour.

On the basis of two exemplary cases of platform labour, the project researches how the practices of mobility and labour migration – and, as such, labour itself – change under digital conditions. The case studies focus on globally distributed digital labour on crowdworking platforms as well as 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 global distribution of digital labour down to the personal computers and smartphones of the workers, who become ‘virtual migrants’ (A. Aneesh) without changing their location. The economic importance of ‘last mile’ delivery services has increased enormously due to online retail and platforms, while requiring place-bound forms of digitised labour 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. The interplay of forms of “virtual” and “real” migration shows how processes of digitisation produce and reconfigure heterogeneous mobility practices which are increasingly flexible, differentiated and temporalized. This, finally, raises epistemic and socially relevant questions about the concept of migration, and for research on migration which will be addressed by the research project.

The project is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and based at Leuphana University’s Centre for Digital Cultures (CDC). The team consists of Manuela Bojadžijev (Principal Investigator), Moritz Altenried (PostDoc), Mira Wallis (PhD), and Clara Wessalowski (SHK).