Migrant labour without migration

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Alex Rivera’s 2008 film Sleep Dealer depicts a world where the US has suspended immigration and a vast steel wall sits on the Mexican border. Armed guards man the wall while drones hunt down and eliminate ‘bad guys’, of which video-footage is then beamed into living rooms as prime-time entertainment – an uncanny forecast of the defence department’s uploading of drone strikes onto YouTube in 2009. Watching it in 2016, only days after Donald Trump’s election as president, was an unusually haunting experience, so acutely prescient were the films predictions about America’s future.

Watching it again during our current crisis, one feels the same ominous weight. Behind the film’s imagined world of borders and bio-surveillance is an economy powered by teleoperation. In Mexican ‘sleep dealer’ factories – so called because workers on lengthy shifts often pass out – tele-migrants remotely control robots undertaking a range of low-skill labour, from picking oranges in California to fixing skyscrapers in New York. In a world where immigration has ground to a halt, virtual reality continues to give distant elites access to cheap nannies and taxi drivers. Migrant labour continues, but bodies no longer cross borders.

Eerie montages of workers lined up in windowless warehouses, jerking their limbs to pilot distant machines, recall the opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where a subterranean working-class shuffles through dimly lit tunnels. Just as Lang imagined workers vanishing into the shadow world of industry, Rivera conjures a nightmarish totality, where corporeality, now separated from labour, is hidden away from the enclaves of capital.

Pushing beyond the realms of the speculative, the power to separate presence from bodies is now taking on a whole new valence. In a moment when social distancing prevents face-to-face work from being fulfilled, teleoperation promises to return the labour market to working order. The business press has been awash with boosterish stories of valiant robots taking blood samples, caring for the sick and even guiding virtual visitors around galleries and museums. We hear of robots with screens for ‘faces’, allowing care workers many miles away to project their presence into the homes of the elderly; remote-control butler bots undertaking simple tasks like washing dishes and folding clothes; and the ‘tactile internet’, which gives distant operators in exoskeletal suits control over warehouse robotics. Robots are the ‘unsung heroes’ of COVID-19, as one particularly excited journalist remarked.

But this merry pageantry of machines hides an eery reality. On the Berkley campus, food delivery robots are controlled by a workforce in Colombia paid $2 an hour. A spokesperson for Kiwibots, the company which services the Berkley campus, stated that “as part of the transition to the 4th industrial revolution, Kiwi is building a hub of technology and opportunity for the young talent of third world countries.” This represents the trajectory of other companies investing in such technology too. The Japanese firm Mira Robotics plans to outsource control of its teleoperated ‘butler bot’ to a workforce outside the country.

The benefits of teleoperation to business during a pandemic are plain to see. Transcending the restrictions enforced by social distancing, the labour process is set free to continue unhindered, liberated from that great nuisance to profitability – the health and safety of workers.

Although this high-tech dream may seem futuristic, this is hardly a new story. The breaking of geographical barriers to enable accumulation beyond capital’s present limits, either through financially coercive or outright violent means, is as old as the system itself. The specific contours of remote-control labour, however, trace outsourcing tendencies beginning in the 1970s, with the refocussing of industry away from advanced economies to those on the periphery. The improved quality and reduced costs of global communication and supply chains released Labour once tethered to specific localities. Large conglomerates began to split their operations. Manufacturing was outsourced to low income nations, and marketing and design kept in the overdeveloped north.

Yet, there are some sectors of the economy that resist outsourcing; much service sector work for instance remains tethered to a specific locality. While a factory can produce the same textiles in Guangdong as it would in Manchester, a cleaner in Guangdong cannot tidy the house of a wealthy financier in Manchester. A barista in Mexico cannot serve coffee to someone in Germany. Capital can only transcend these geographical restrictions through full automation – still impossible in the case of many services – or the next best thing – teleoperated avatars. Such technologies, which require sophisticated VR exoskeletal suits are only starting to emerge. But more rudimentary tele-bots, like those on Berkeley campus, show that such technology may do for services what was once done to manufacturing. Capital can go to where labour costs are cheap, instead of attract labour to where costs remain high.

If covid has hastened the spread of these technologies, then the world emerging from the virus promises to consolidate their use. Teleoperated service bots are the prime technology for a future of stronger borders and bolshier nationalism, where migrants are ever-more painted as a threat and blamed for the failures of central government. This has already been heightened by the current crisis, not least in the ramped up nativism of Trump. But the contradictions of capitalism and labour mean that ultimately anti-immigrant politics runs up against specific economic demands. Reducing migration only antagonises capital’s desire for cut-rate labour and a global elite’s need for cheap cleaners and nannies. Nativists need to have it both ways – migrant labour but without the migration – a contradiction teleoperation promises to resolve.

British politics is also not immune to these automated nativist panaceas. With the confident swagger so often attending technological illiteracy, the home secretary Priti Patel asserted that jobs vacated by migrants excluded under the system could be filled by ‘automation’ – conveniently forgetting that technology alone is incapable of doing the job of, say, a care worker. Fully-automated robots capable of emotion – a capacity essential for care work, though Patel might argue otherwise – remain a distant dream. But telepresence - combining the emotional labour of workers with the programmed activities of machines - may provide the technical fix Patel envisions.

Such speculation may appear to be moving toward the dystopic - a dangerous lure at times of crisis, when the giddy pull of such an imaginary may feel irresistible. Indeed, forecasts of migrant labour being replaced wholesale by teleoperation, as some nationalist techno-utopians desire, should be treated as the dangerous fantasies they are.

Yet, some of the key sectors where EEA migrants work in the UK - social care, warehousing and hospitality – are precisely where teleoperation is already being implemented. Though food delivery platforms like Deliveroo market themselves as a way for hip, young urbanites to make a bit of extra cash, the reality is migrants comprise a significant proportion of the company’s UK workforce. The same for Uber and the courier service Hermes, which has been trialling delivery robots similar to those on Berkley campus.

Companies like Kiwibots promise ‘talented’ ‘third world’ workers employment ‘opportunities’ without having to leave their homes and families. But the word ‘opportunity’ elides the necessity to escape so many experience when war, climate catastrophe and poverty are so unevenly distributed. What’s really promised here is paralysis – the world of Sleep Dealer – where the ‘talented’ are trapped in war torn nations and poverty, yet still forced to serve a distant elite; it is one of humans replaced by avatars, and emotional warmth by cold intimacy, of enclaves and ghettos, where the elite get what they have always wanted: a robotically cheerful but essentially invisible service staff.

Phil Jones is is a research affiliate at Autonomy think tank and a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex. He is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.