Chef Enrique Partidas Daboin works out of Santa Fe, a financial district in Mexico City, home to numerous international businesses, startups, and, more recently, English-speaking digital nomads. Daboin works from a dark kitchen where he spends a typical day preparing elaborate made-to-order meals to be shipped off via Facebook, WhatsApp, and last-mile delivery platforms like Rappi. As 95% of his clients are foreign, he must work together with distributors and gourmet markets to secure imported ingredients to satisfy diverse palates. Daboin told Rest of World that he has fully embraced the new wave of migrants and nomads, who he said are willing to pay a premium.
Daboin is one of the thousands of workers connecting digital platforms and applications with the growing base of foreigners who have settled in Mexico City. Some are highly visible, like the brightly uniformed delivery gig workers on bicycles and motorbikes, but many go unnoticed — cleaning workers, personal chefs, gallerists, and dog walkers, often making their way from the poorer outskirts of the city or the neighboring State of Mexico. Most descend on foreigner- favorite neighborhoods such as Condesa, Polanco, and other digital nomad-heavy districts. The incentives are clear: Foreigners, particularly migrants from the U.S., spend more lavishly and more often on app-based services than locals do.
There is a price to pay for catering to digital nomads, though, said Daboin. “Almost none of these foreigners eat spicy food, we have to adapt for them.”
Gig workers told Rest of World the evolving digital service economy is due in large part to the abundance of digital nomads in Mexico City. Experts say their presence has changed the nature of work in the metropolis. This ranges from apps giving their workers free English classes to workers’ increased reliance on generous tipping to work norms shifting to suit international whims, as house cleaners expected to provide their own cleaning supplies have found out. According to more than 18 workers and app founders that Rest of World spoke to, the number of foreign customers can range from around half the client base in the case of delivery workers, to 95%, like with Daboin.
The rise of app-based work and the steady growth of digital nomads who reside in Mexico have increased in tandem for years, but both expanded dramatically in the aftermath of the pandemic, Víctor Carreón Rodríguez, a professor of economics at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), told Rest of World. While there is not much data on how dependent gig workers have become on foreigners specifically, he said there were broader clues across the industry. For instance, Carreón Rodríguez claimed that restaurant workers a decade ago made significantly more than delivery employees in selected cities across Mexico, but that gap has lessened and the salary ranges are now nearly equal.
“The location in which one works became irrelevant,” he said, “[allowing] for an increasingly tech-savvy young generation to focus on remote work while boosting the use of delivery and services applications in the places they arrived at.”
There is no expectation, however, that the new, temporary inhabitants of Mexico City should speak the local language. Because foreigners tend to have more money, they also possess more power, said Carreón Rodríguez, leading to the expectation that workers should abide by nomads’ preferences.
Some digital platforms are investing in English lessons for their gig workers. For six months, starting in March 2022, Rappi — a delivery app from Colombia that has a strong grip on the market in Mexico — began offering a program named “Better in English,” consisting of personalized English classes for drivers through Platzi, an edtech startup. In a joint statement, co-written with the delivery riders’ union Ni Un Repartidor Menos, the companies stated that “as the world becomes more and more connected via e-commerce, there has been a greater need for people to speak one common language: English.”
Javier Cerna, a Rappi deliveryman for two years, has recently seen the number of foreign customers rise. He reckons that they now make up half his client base. “These English classes are helping us a lot with the issues we were facing,” he told Rest of World, referring to the frequent misunderstandings he would have when texting or talking to a foreign customer over the phone.
Estefania Hernández Barajas, the founder and CEO of Mi Dulce Hogar, a cleaning service platform launched in 2015, estimates that only about 1% of her staff currently have conversational English skills, often after stints in the U.S. as migrants.
“Domestic workers have often faced conflicts with expat customers who expect them to arrive at each apartment with all cleaning supplies in tow,” Hernández Barajas told Rest of World. (In Mexico, homeowners are expected to have all cleaning supplies at home.)
Paola Ángel, the co-founder of Ni Un Repartidor Menos, told Rest of World that beyond better customer service, these skills gave workers a chance to better their lot while making a bit of money, too. “These workers don’t want to be drivers forever,” she said.
Mauricio Ucrós Maldonado, head of corporate communications and sustainability for Rappi in Mexico and Costa Rica, told Rest of World that 3,000 English language courses had been offered “as part of an initiative for social mobility … to strengthen the professional profile of Rappi deliverypeople.”
Some workers bypass apps to avoid paying them commissions. This is especially true for personalized services like cooking and cleaning. But it doesn’t mean that digital platforms are being bypassed altogether. Free solutions like WhatsApp and Facebook groups bring independent gig workers and digital nomads together.
The Facebook group Foreigners in Mexico City, which has over 50,000 members and was nominally created to address questions posed by international residents, has been adopted by many gig workers. Adrián Martínez, from the online collective Ku Adiestramiento Canino CDMX, offers pet care services via Facebook. Beyond the fact that “foreign customers are more generous and do not try to bargain, they also recommend other expat clients,” he told Rest of World.
But bypassing apps can come with risk. Atali Pérez, a house cleaner who was born and raised on the outskirts of Mexico City, inherited an apartment in the nomad-heavy Roma Norte neighborhood. She told Rest of World that she felt scammed when a man who spoke English offered to facilitate the rental of her apartment to foreigners. Pérez eventually found out that her apartment was being rented on Airbnb for five times what the man was paying her. “He made sure I couldn’t talk to them.”
Pérez believes that her neighbor’s apartment is being sublet by her original tenants. The temptation for profiteering has proved too much, even though Pérez and her fellow apartment owners don’t want strangers from an app in their properties.
Not every sector has benefited the same from the influx of digital nomads. Sarai Balderrama, the co-founder of Agencia de Arte, a digital platform that promotes up-and-coming Mexican artists to international clients, told Rest of World, “For over a year, I’ve been trying to tap into that market but they don’t seem interested in staying. You usually buy art when you start calling a place home.”
On paper, Carreón Rodríguez believes that this trend will continue to grow in the future. The precedent has certainly been set, he said, as between “December 2020 and June 2022, we [saw] an increase of 100,000 delivery workers” in Mexico. He also believes that overall, given the added cash being spent by foreigners in the economy, the effects will generally be net positive.
But for those who haven’t benefited from the arrival of the nomads, deeper cultural concerns persist. Spanish-language teacher Ana Chávez took to Facebook and language learning apps to reach potential students. She told Rest of World that, despite the glut of foreigners created by the remote work surge of the last two years, she hasn’t seen any particular influx of clients.
“Very few of these newcomers are interested in learning Spanish,” she said. “It has created a new dimension, a new city, that consists of digital nomads, hindering the integration of newcomers into our culture.”