Day Laborers’ Digital Archive, Mobile Phone Use, and Self-Empowerment

Written by Carlos Jimenez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Film, and Journalism at the University of Denver.

Day laborers stand on street corners, at hardware stores, or other hidden areas in cities across the world and they are the basis of what scholars now call the “gig-economy.” The gig-economy, however, is closely tied to vast digital networks and platforms, which facilitate work agreements so that people don’t have to meet face to face. Digital technologies have given order and prestige to day labor, which has taken over such work as taxi driving, food delivery, dog walking, and much more.

In this world of 20-somethings who move around and take up side work via their mobile phones, we often overlook the fact that many individuals continue to stand outside on corners or sidewalks waiting for work. The day laborers in my study were overwhelmingly Latino immigrants seeking manual labor (construction work; farm work; movers). These people must be ready to go to work on a moment’s notice and be physically present and available at particular sites. Such day labor differs from gig-economy labor, as it entails a different type of life world and work ethic that does not rely on an online profile or resume. Instead, it requires being visible and ready to rush an employer’s car or truck early in the morning. 

If manual day laborers are not using their mobile phones to seek out work on digital platforms, then how are they using them? My ongoing research explores not only how day laborers use their mobile phones, but also what information they store in them. Specifically, I’m interested in day laborers’ collection of images and videos about themselves, their lives, or their work practices. I argue that a day laborer’s “digital archive” can function as a source of self-empowerment as it includes personal memories and connections, supports identity formation, and enables self-improvement or self-reparation.1 

In a 2019 survey of 411 day laborers in Denver, scholars Galemba and Kuhn found that day laborers are largely foreign born (88%), Latino (94%), and male. Of the surveyed workers 23% were homeless at the time of the survey and 64% had smartphones, although this percentage increased over the survey period.2

A pioneering study on mobile phones and day laborers in Seattle, Washington found that ICT’s “help[ed] immigrant day laborers maintain links with their past and their roots, offer tools to navigate their present needs, and help them build future plans and aspirations.”3 Baron argued that the mobile phone served as a source of connection to friends, family, and the world, but also to employers and a steady income.

Building upon this research, I’ve carried out 15-months of ethnographic field work at Centro Humanitario (September 2017-January 2018), a day labor center in Denver. In this study, we observed day laborers use their mobile phone cameras to produce a set of images and videos that documented the work they did as well as their everyday lives. This media ultimately coalesced into a digital archive of day laborers’ experiences and memories. Our ethnographic work culminated in an intensive six-week digital storytelling workshop where I co-taught day laborers and domestic workers how to make short films about their lives with Marty Otañez at University of Colorado-Denver. We learned  about day laborers’ relationship with their mobile phones through in-depth qualitative interviews with six individuals.

While our work is still in progress there are a couple of findings that I would like to mention. The first involves day laborers’ use of the mobile phone to converse with employers. No previous studies on day laborers have focused on their mobile phone conversations with employers. The research by Baron, et al., identified texting as the preference for day laborers who valued asynchronous conversations and not having to navigate the language barrier over the phone. We found day laborers are not the quickest responders to text messages as the examples in the illustrations below demonstrate. Hyper-coordination and rapid response times may be central experiences of many peoples’ mobile phone use, but such practices are not widespread among immigrants and day laborers because of language barriers and limited familiarity with texting.4

Image of day laborer’s conversations with employer, where the day laborer hasn’t yet responded. Photo by author.


Screen captures of pictures taken by day laborers of their work in progress. Photo by author.

Despite this, many day laborers do use their mobile phones to document their work. They capture their daily work by photographing or video recording the material progress they make on projects and the outcome of their physical labor. Since most day laborers subsist on one-day-at-a-time verbal contracts, their work would be lost without such recordings. They do not own the property they work on, and will likely not return to the same private space ever again, yet they have contributed to its materiality through their labor. Given this, the day laborer’s mobile phone camera becomes a valuable resource that can be used to document the labor they perform or spaces they inhabit. For some, taking a photo involves a desire to remember, but for day laborers it also involves creating credibility, having a visual track record of one’s labor, and using that record to get consistent work. Day laborers realize that they are publicly viewed as an unskilled general workforce and are often exploited as a result. Using mobile phones, some day laborers convey that they are capable of meticulous and skilled work in the hope of securing future work or being recommended to another employer.

Pictures of day laborers’ phones that includes their home page, a YouTube video from Indonesia, and a video of the Great Wall of China on their TV. Photo by author.

Beyond documenting their work, day laborers use mobile phone cameras to take pictures of things that they want to remember, or that they find beautiful, or impressive. They also use them to establish visual connections to distant places and people, whether their hometowns in Mexico, a YouTube video from Indonesia, or friends in the Dominican Republic. When I asked day laborers whether they knew these individuals prior to their online friendship, they said no, which is similar to Burrell and Anderson’s work where Ghanaians sought out strangers neither in their host or home country, but beyond it.5 Instead of only looking homeward, they were gaining access to other information flows that presented them with new possibilities, new life styles, and ideas. For the day laborers in Denver, however, they were long distance and one-way conversations, as these images illustrate, but the conversations offer the day laborers a necessary connection. Despite being weak-ties, they offer them the opportunity to express kindness and well wishes to their long-distance connection.

Video of a day laborer’s conversation on Facebook Messenger. Photo by author.

The digital archive of a day laborer is filled with images of things they have touched, fixed, worked on, or that they want to remember, and of distant worlds and contacts. The result is a day laborer digital archive that has a several purposes. First, it is practical; day laborers need to find work and showcase their valuable skills and experiences via their digital portfolio to current or future employers. Second, the archive is symbolic: what is stored on their phones helps day laborers to continuously rethink and reimagine their identities and lives. These images may range widely and include photos of other people’s houses, of other people’s broken (but now fixed things), of voluptuous “untouchable” women, and of long distance one-way connections to people and places.

If dominant society views day labor as an unskilled general workforce that has a very limited socio-economic mobility, their digital archives create a counternarrative. The digital archive filters and stores the day laborer’s greatest hits (their flexible skills and experiences at work), but also provides a personalized space of digital accumulation and connection. As conversations with women online and the photographs of worksites multiply on their mobile phones, the fact that they don’t own the property they work on or that their connections to women are weak fade away. The growing digital archives of Latino immigrant day laborers come to express a sense of ownership, accomplishment, and popularity. In the end, what I find significant is that day laborers and migrant workers use mobile phones as a tool to actively and creatively redefine their digital selves and empower themselves in ways that most media scholars are largely unaware of.

Endnotes:

1 Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

2 Rebecca Galemba and Randall Kuhn, “Wage Theft and Its Victims in Colorado: Research,” accessed August 15, 2019, https://alightnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Wage-Theft-Long-Version.pdf.

3 Luis Fernando Baron, Moriah Neils, and Ricardo Gomez, “Crossing New Borders: Computers, Mobile Phones, Transportation, and English Language among Hispanic Day Laborers in Seattle, Washington,” Journal of the Association for Information Science & Technology 65, no. 1 (2014): 98–108. doi:10.1002/asi.22949.

4 Richard Ling and Birgitte Yttri, “Hyper-coordination via Mobile Phones in Norway,” in Perpetual Contact Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, ed. James E. Katz and Mark Aakhus (Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5 Jenna Burrell and Ken Anderson, “‘I Have Great Desires to Look Beyond My World’: Trajectories of Information and Communication Technology Use Among Ghanaians Living Abroad,” New Media & Society 10, no. 2 (2008): 203-224.

Bio:Carlos Jimenez is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Film, and Journalism at the University of Denver. His research broadly examines the role of media (mobile phones, social media, community radio, and automation) in the everyday lives of low-wage immigrant workers. In California he helped farmworkers build a community radio station. You can tune in to Radio Indígena www.mixteco.org/radio. His research in Denver currently focuses on the role of media technology in the everyday lives of day laborers. He can be reached at: carlos.jimenez@du.edu.