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date: 08 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

The labor market of the 21st century is evolving at a rapid pace, making traditional manufacturing and agricultural jobs increasingly precarious and generating significant pressure for turnover, retraining, and adaptation by workers. Latin America’s labor regulation, adopted in the middle of the 20th century to foster industrial development and incorporate urban workers, has been slow to adapt to these conditions. Its restrictive and costly hiring and firing rules offer stronger protections than in many other parts of the world, but they often apply to a diminishing minority of laborers. Despite a few exceptions, once-strong unions have been hollowed out in the region, and workers have become increasingly atomized in their job seeking. The region’s educational systems are plagued by underinvestment, and they struggle to provide the needed technical skills that could galvanize investment that would provide higher-wage employment. Large segments of the workforce—a majority in most countries—find themselves in the informal sector, in jobs that are not registered with the state and that do not make contributions to pensions and social security systems.

Why has Latin America—a region endowed with a variety of natural resources and a resilient entrepreneurial spirit—exhibited these patterns in its labor market regulation? The answer lies in an overlapping nexus of economic and political influences in the region. In this complex mix, one strand of scholarship has documented the lasting and recurrent alliance between organized labor and political parties on the left. Another strand has highlighted the concentrated power of business interests—both local and transnational—that have had the power to shape policies. And a third body of research concentrates on the electoral dynamics that have given rise to a growing set of politically motivated policies that seek to support informal sector workers, but may incentivize their remaining in that status. Finally, considerable attention has been given to the under-resourced state agencies that are not adequately monitoring labor regulations, allowing for widespread evasion of required payroll taxes.

A change-resistant cycle has predominated in the region, in which protected insiders in the unionized sectors seek to preserve a set of protections that apply to a shrinking few, while politicians court support among outsiders with direct benefits that address immediate needs but have not yet achieved long-term or intergenerational change. Business interests have largely benefited from the status quo of labor law evasion and social security avoidance, so they have been slow to invest in upgrading the workforce or changing technology that would inspire additional investment in education. Addressing this situation will require efforts at both the political and economic levels, perhaps loosening the partisan ties that lock in preferential policies, as well as increasing the skill levels that would attract higher-tech industries and higher-paying jobs.

Keywords: Latin America, Latin American politics, labor, regulation, globalization, politics, unions, informal sector

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