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Los Delivreros: Labor, Platforms, and Transnational Flows of Information in Latin American Gig Workers

This thesis investigates the transnational modes of community-building and network formation and how these are instrumental for delivreros (food delivery workers) in New York City to exercise agency, forge their own narrative, and resist platform control through their use of digital social networks and communication technologies. Scholars such as Gray (2019) and Rosenblat (2017) have shown how the gig economy ecosystem is underpinned by long-standing tensions between companies and workers; I argue that migrant delivery workers defy information and knowledge asymmetries by repurposing the technology that has been built as a means for control. Marginalized, misrepresented, or ignored by mainstream media and governmental actors, delivery workers use information and communication technologies to bypass traditional channels, disseminate their own stories, and create community. Overall, my research illuminates how the flow of information through different spaces and times enables delivery workers to construct a place for subversion and negotiation with roles assigned to them by broader socio-political forces.

In the first chapter, building on ethnographic fieldwork in NYC with delivery workers, I examine the relationship between digital technologies and labor in the platform ecosystem. I argue that a way to regulate work and workers within the gig economy is through time uncertainty and gamification. Yet, I also contend that workers use social media platforms as tools for resistance and subversion. To do that, I outline how delivery workers strategize and learn through social media platforms. Much of the literature on platforms and the gig economy has focused on the typically precarious working conditions. By shifting the focus to workers’ concern about their lack of control with their time, I seek to complement these analyses and to understand the different factors and actors that might affect workers’ lives.

In the second chapter, I map how delivery workers communicate and engage collectively both in the physical and the digital worlds. My research reveals two digital platforms that workers use to share information: one that operates inwards (Whatsapp) and another that operates outwards (Facebook). These two forms of communication represent opposite sides of the spectrum between public and private communication as well as ephemeral and permanent information. Delivery workers use Facebook to livestream accidents, upload information about bike robberies, and document their actions. I identify three objectives to livestreaming: it helps workers construct their own narrative, it maintains transnational ties, and it establishes public credibility and reputation. And they use WhatsApp to coordinate, request help, and mobilize with one another in real-time. I analyze how public and private means of communication facilitate and constrain social forms of organization. These layers of communication synergize to form a transnational distributed knowledge network and to shape and interpret the collective identity of Latin American delivery workers. Thus, I argue that delivreros’ use of technology provides a unique glimpse into the convergence of social networks, media culture, and social movements within the context of contemporary gig labor and migrant organization.

I conclude my thesis with insights about how delivery workers are adapting older indigenous practices to a context of urban cities and technology. I argue that migration moves ideas, memories, knowledge, stories, and forms of organization. I finish by thinking about migration as a medium and the way the social forms of organization that I observed in NYC are reminiscent of a long history of self-organized tactics, which have moved along with the delivreros I met. Latin American delivery workers’ experiences in NYC are not unique but rather gig workers all over the world are undergoing similar organizational patterns and transformations. I strengthen my case by focusing on urban safety and millennial modes of organization; I strive to depict a bigger picture beyond labor, platforms, and workers resistance. Overall, I bridge theories of platforms and labor with media and migration.

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Ámbar Reyes
Written by
Ámbar Reyes

Ámbar Reyes is a filmmaker and media researcher from Mexico. She has a deep interest in the documentary as a way to explore, represent and engage with the world. Her work revolves around questions of memory, migration, and identity. Ámbar believes that co-creation and storytelling through a multiplicity of voices is a powerful way to delve into unspoken and underappreciated perspectives of social phenomena.

She graduated from Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey with a BA in Digital Arts and Animation. She has used audiovisuals to document and disseminate projects within the realms of academia, technology, and science. At MIT, she aims to push the boundaries of documentaries, and to ignite conversations and research which may act as vehicles for social change.

Outside of academia, Ámbar can usually be found biking along the Charles. She enjoys dancing (salsa, anyone?) and exploring outdoors. You can check her work at www.ambar.com.mx.

Ámbar Reyes Written by Ámbar Reyes