The Role of Digital Labor (Labour) in Return Migration

I started writing this blog over labour day weekend reflecting on the ways digital labor determined much of my return migration.

Much of the literature on return migration is shrouded in the romance of families moving closer together–of daughters and sons returning to care for aging parents and migrant worker parents coming home to long-awaiting children. I do admit I spent a lot of time on google maps ogling the street and house I used to live in as well as gazing at family photographs and videos wondering what it would be like to see them close-up again, but they couldn’t bring me back like a job could. It is family. rather than work contacts that is discussed in the literature on migration and ICTs (Madinaou, 2012, 2013). There is a labor blindspot when it comes to return migration. How is it that migrants are able to return at all? Without a job nor ICTs, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to return.

From the non-migrant perspective the drive to return is almost always biblical-like– to be with one’s own ‘people’. This is built on implicit beliefs that migrants are outsiders and anomolies in a host or recipient country and need to ‘return’ in order to be legitimate citizens. Not surprisingly, policy literature also emphasizes the naturalness of this ‘return’ to natal country. The underlying gist is that migrants’ struggle ends and citizens assume their place in the social order of nation-states when they return ‘home.’

Even newer literature on what’s called, ‘circular migration’ (meaning migrants obtaining higher education, skills, and capital in advanced economies and remitting and then returning to invest in their home countries) emphasizes this mobility and migration in general as healthy for individuals and households because it doesn’t tax the host country and benefits the developing world thereby avoiding brain drain. Focusing on ‘brain circulation’ or ‘care circulation’ eases the concern that scientists, nurses and doctors and financiers and IT specialists will abandon the countries where they were educated and practiced, returning with greater social and financial capital to contribute. This makes south-north-south migration a good long-term investment. This structural and new economics approach to return migration emphasizes benefits brought back to the ‘old’ country, especially for example technology, thereby revitilzing lagging economies through diffusion of innovations and contributing to development. With this there is a sense of ‘no contact’ with the home or source country until the returnee hits its shores and much of this is framed in terms of development.

A transnational approach to return lmigration focuses instead on the ‘betwixt and between’ (Grillo, 2007) worlds of labor migrants, with their feet in both worlds—they keep contact with their professional networks at ‘home’ and throughout the world, and are mobilizing resources on a global scale all of the time for the next move. Furthermore they are in a pereptual state of preparedness (for a move).

This transnational perspective, along with a social network approach to returnees shows that work/labor is necassary to incorporate into the picture, before a returnee returns and that ICTs are integral to this process of preparing for onward or return migration. Certainly this was my experience both upon migrating for work in England and for returning to the states from my job there after 7+ years.  Albeit many prescriptions for what should be prepared,  the literature rarely focuses on the ‘how’ of return migration.

Of course as an academic migrant, I acknowledge my experience is substantially different from others migrating or returning in different sectors or countries and the diversity of reasons for return should be acknowledged. Due however to pervasiveness of the internet and its penetration in many countries, the preparedness for the return more than ever appears to be wedded to the it. My migration and return was precipitated by relatively simple work-related internet-based communication.  With the increase of digital and distributed workplaces, the internet is fundamentally important for return labour migration and forming diasporas. While researchers, including my own have found that transnational families use a variety of ICTs to stay in touch, nearly all of my work-based communication across the ‘pond’ was fused directly to the internet.

My example of migrating to England and then returning illustrates the internet’s importance. I discovered a good job on a a professional listserv I suscribed to, and a colleague who was a type of mentor, living about 400 miles away, gave me further information and references for the job–through email. The application involved sending my paperwork electronically and writings too, but they also asked me to send a video of me talking about my work. This was in 2005 before miniature video cameras came on the scene. They asked me to send a DVD but this was when the bombings took place (in July) and I didn’t know if the DVD would arrive in time. I had a video camera on hand so I took the video of myself and then linked it to a website for them to see, after which we had a short conference call interview and then was offered the job. A number of years later, on the same listserv a post was announced that I knew I had a chance at, which was further reinforced by emails that I had exchanged prior to applying to it.  In short, my ability to locate a job ‘back home’ would not have been possible without the internet which served as the main means for communication. Nor would it be possible if I hadn’t maintained a professional network from far away.

But it was also predicated on my digital labor. Digital labor, in short (read the book: Digital Labor: The internet as playground and factory) focuses on the time and work you put in to internet commercial and public providers, data mining— that you are not getting paid for, but which often benefits companies. This turns everyday people into what’s called,  crowdsourced ‘netslaves.’ The first and most obvious one is Facebook. This is not only used by folks to make and keep personal friends but to expand their social capital through professional contacts and networks.

In 2012, I decided to leave it permanently, ‘unfriending’ it. I was tired of constantly updating my profile and information and realized many of my ‘friends’ were actually part of my professional network that I could keep through email while I was back in England. I heard a show on NPR which discussed how Facebook uses all of your data for profits, since it went public, and that none of it was owned by me, including pictures allowing them to sell facial recognition and my data and essentially, personal stories. They could use or sell any of it without asking my permission. Incidentally, Facebook has spent millions lobbying for immigration laws that benefit them because they pay cheaply for outsourced and guest workers for their digital labour  ( The other thing I also started doing was to join and expand Linkedin another site similar to FB but used principally for job hunting. I made a profile. Sites, where no one but the user herself profits, were ones which I wanted to support but these are hard to find nowadays. After writing a book which helped me get a new job in which, btw, I was requested to proofread from an outsourced company in India (another form of digital labor of the publishing industry), I started blogging. These blogs count little on the academic market and there’s a lot to be said about how volunteer and guest bloggers are exploited on commercial sites for owners’ profits (the Huffington Post is a good example selling it to aol  without acknowledging compensation for the bloggers who made it what it was). And I’m not naive about WordPress either—this is perfect for marketing data mining on people’s opinions, experiences and pictures of their lives.

My feeble efforts to protect my personal time and stories from being appropriated did not protect me from the direction my field in education was quietly  moving in–online learning was becoming the way adult education and professional studies was done now. Recently I did a little research and learned that more than half of all adult education programs in the country were online-based. This wasn’t a bad thing since it makes sense that working adults who want master’s and doctorates need to keep their jobs to survive, online learning becoming an accommodation. But it required more of my, and other teachers’  digital labor.

Even though I had little experience of it, I was hired for a job in England that was an online and blended master’s program. But the time that I took to teach often went way beyond the institution’s remit. My digital labor as a teacher was expected to make this program work.  During this time I spent hours online with students, often on weekends when they could study and participate on the program after and during their paid work hours. We had residential orientations and classes on Saturdays four times a year, which required also  dinners the night before with students to ‘bond’. It happened so naturally that I didn’t see  my ‘personal’ time eroding even as there were more demands for online paperwork for my institution on top of the teaching and consulting with students. Four years later the program’s shelf life ended when my students’ employers decided to no longer fund their employees to attend a program that had raised its tuition in line with new British policies. After I was moved to another online and blended program the university started which focused on guess what, online learning. I taught in that program for the last few years, and practiced the same digital labor and more to the point where I was looking for alternatives. There’s been much written on the wearing effects of teaching online but hopefully framing it as ‘digital labor’ makes it more understandable in the wider picture.

For those in jobs that are not digitally dependent, such as the care workers I studied while in England, it was harder for them to develop professional diasporic networks while abroad since they they did bodywork for their clients up to 70-80 hours a week and had little time (that’s what they told me). Many of them knew little about how to return for a good job and while in touch constantly with family all over the world and in their home countries, many had lost their professional networks including knowing about the necassary qualifications needed to reintegrate into their professions. More than a few also regretted losing their skills and stated they were not gaining new ones for new markets. Although they too were taking online classes, these were in the vocations in England, not ones that could advance them. Furthermore, a number of these privately run online classes proved to be bogus and they ran away with their hard-earned and borrowed funds. It was heartbreaking to watch.

But digital labor doesn’t end with return migration. A friend of mine jokingly told me that when he started his new job after returning from many years abroad he was shocked while on a camping trip not far from the city, a few weeks before he was to start he received 25 messages on his smartphone calendar which also went directly to his email, inviting him to meetings orientations, and welcome dinners, and all of which required him to either: accept, decline or give a maybe. Not knowing his life ahead it was difficult for him to try and figure out these basic questions and he didn’t know that he actually wanted to respond either since he wasn’t yet employed by this institution. This is another type of digital labour I am referring to, which all of us seem to be engaged in the new digital workplace.

This makes me wonder how digital labor determines much of other people’s return labor migration and their workplaces?


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