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date: 30 October 2020

Work and Labor Movements in Latin Americafree

  • Omar Manky BonillaOmar Manky BonillaDepartment of Social and Political Sciences, Universidad del Pacifíco


Labor studies in Latin America have undergone important transformations in the early 21st century. Workers in several countries have contested the flexible processes of labor and work that were common through the 1980s and 1990s and the labor movement has transformed some of its traditional strategies. As a consequence, the field is witnessing important debates, such as those linked to the spatiality of labor strategies, the emergence of a broader notion of work, and the potential networks among labor and other struggles.


  • Comparative Politics
  • Political Behaviour
  • Comparative Politics


This article discusses the most important changes and continuities in Latin American labor studies since 2000, mapping how the field analyzes the dynamics of the region’s labor movement. Latin America has experienced significant transformations, both because of external factors, such as the commodities boom and the increase of global trade, and internal dynamics, such as the rise of leftist governments and the emergence of new social movements. Detailing the way labor studies have responded to this shifting context is vital to understanding its state in the early 21st century.

Latin American labor studies has always been an interdisciplinary field, a product of the constant dialogue between political sociology, industrial relations, economics, and anthropology (Germani & de Yujnovsky, 1973; Nun, 1971; Quijano, 1977; Whyte & Holmberg, 1956). Consequently, current debates about labor unions draw on various theoretical and political perspectives (De la Garza, 2016b). It is also a cross-regional field that engages with global debates about the alternatives of the labor movement. Therefore, whereas various scholars may focus on specific countries, most studies often incorporate the conceptual and political discussions taking place at different sites around the world.

This article explores the current research streams in two stages. First, it focuses on two traditional labor studies themes—labor and work flexibility and labor strategies and identities—showing how the approaches used to explore them have transformed over the last 20 years. Second, it maps three conceptual discussions emerging from the thematic discussion, noting how they illustrate key arguments about the future of labor in the region: the spatiality of labor strategies, the conceptualization of labor’s nature, and the potential links among labor and other struggles.

While this article does not include a separate discussion for each country in Latin America, there are excellent reviews available, especially in countries with a strong tradition in labor studies, such as Argentina (Neffa & Del Bono, 2016), Brazil (Lima & Carneiro Araújo, 2016; Santana & Braga, 2009), or Mexico (Carrillo, 2010; De la Garza, 2016a). Reviews are also available for the cases of Chile (Aravena, 2016), Colombia (Urrea & Celis, 2016), Peru (Cueto, Saravia, & Manky, 2017), and Venezuela (Lucerna & Iranzo, 2016). Abramo et al. (1997), Cook (1999), and French (2000) provide detailed overviews of pre-2000 discussions. This article draws on these analyses and offers a systematic look at a field that has become richer with the strengthening of research networks such as the Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios del Trabajo [Latin American Labor Studies Association] and journals such as the Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios del Trabajo [Latin American Journal of Labor Studies] (Walter & Szlechter, 2012).

The Changing Worlds of Latin America’s Labor Studies

Work and Employment Flexibility

This section draws on Benner’s distinction between “work” and “employment.” The former is “the actual nature of the activities people do while engaged in the process of production”—i.e., the labor process that takes place on the shop floor—and the latter is “the informal and formal contractual relationship between worker and employer” (Benner, 2008, p. 23). While both terms are critical to understanding the labor context, disentangling them helps to provide a nuanced view of the literature, which has predominantly focused on employment when discussing the links between flexibility and labor movements in Latin America.

In its beginnings, labor studies concentrated on macroprocesses, such as state reforms and national labor movements, to the exclusion of more granular topics, such as workplace or intra-union dynamics (De la Garza, 2016b). Research at the organizational level, which has involved engaging with management studies and ethnographic data, gained traction in the late 1980s (Abramo et al., 1997). Influenced by debates on flexible specialization (Piore & Sabel, 1984), scholars began discussing potential paths of development for the working class after the economic crisis of the 1970s (Antunes, 2014). It was in this context that studies about the restructuring of Latin American society began focusing on the increasing flexibility of work arrangements.

Thereafter, issues such as the conditions under which work flexibility arrangements emerged, their effects on productivity, and how they affected workers’ skills became crucial (see Novick, 2000). While initially focused on manufacturing, research has begun considering the service sector, where, for example, studies on software development (Rodríguez Gutierrez & De la Garza, 2011) and call centers (Del Bono & Bulloni, 2013; Braga, 2014) have helped to better understand different work models and their consequences for organized labor.

One of the most promising research streams focuses on the dynamics of outsourcing. Specifically, scholars in countries with productive structures as dissimilar as Peru (Sanguineti, 2012) and Brazil (Antunes, 2014) have analyzed the substantial increase of subcontracting in the region, emphasizing how this practice has reduced large companies’ labor costs in countries with protective labor laws. Most studies necessarily highlight the effects of outsourcing and subcontracting on union organizing (Aravena & Núñez, 2009; Celis Ospina, 2012; Novick & Carrillo, 2008).

While research on work flexibility is ongoing, it is worth noting that the literature has reached a partial consensus about the transformation in Latin American workplace practices. As De la Garza (2016b) summarizes, “post-Fordism did not exist empirically in Latin America and, in the best of cases, it was an academic project, rather than a business one, with great difficulties to establish itself” (p. 29).

However, it is worth noting that there is still an open research stream about the effects of work flexibility. In contrast to Asia, Latin American has experienced widespread growth, received massive foreign investments, and signed several free trade agreements while industrial employment stagnated (Brady, Kaya, & Gereffi, 2011). Thus, scholars remain interested in the way work is organized in different sectors and countries, given the region’s heterogeneity: comparing Argentinean call centers, the Mexican software industry, and the emerging retail industry in Peru has proved very challenging.

In contrast to the work flexibility debates, since the region began undertaking neoliberal reforms in the mid-1980s, employment flexibility has been one of the richest fields of enquiry in Latin American labor studies. By 1999, Cook (1999) had noted that a vast transformation had changed the dynamics of labor relations and described broader issues, such as the “increased presence of foreign capital and foreign direct investment, greater importance of the export sector relative to production for the domestic market, fiscal austerity, declining social spending, and deregulation of the labor market” (Cook, 1999, p. 240).

Generally speaking, the focus in the last decade has been on the legal (e.g., Fraile, 2009; Vega Ruíz, 2005) and political dynamics (e.g., Carnes, 2014; Cook, 2007; Murillo, 2001) of these reforms. More recently, as some governments have begun to embrace more progressive agendas, the field has broadened. The push toward flexible labor markets started in Latin America, but the region has also witnessed some reforms aiming at a new (and less flexible) “social pact” (Aleman, 2014). From leftist governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina, to the more moderate regimes in Chile and Peru, legislative efforts to regulate precarious work (Uriarte & Colotuzzo, 2009), and unpaid labor (Valenzuela & Mora, 2009) have spurred researchers to shift their attention to how labor unions can mobilize and push for change.

Although weakened, labor has demonstrated a resolve over the past decade to improve their working conditions in the legal arena. Other well-known cases include Chile, where the state passed a law to regulate subcontracting after months of mineworkers’ mobilizations (Aravena & Núñez, 2009), or Peru, where young people organized themselves to stop the approval of a law attacking their labor rights (Fernandez Maldonado, 2015). A similar path of renewal in labor mobilizations seems to have taken place in countries such as Bolivia (Fornillo, 2009) and Argentina (Payo Esper, 2014). Finally, one innovative and fascinating case in this regard has been that of domestic workers, who have organized to struggle for their rights in several countries (Blofield, 2012; Maich, 2014).

It is worth noting that this line of research tracks not only legislative changes but has also begun engaging in more theoretical analyses. For example, Chilean researchers have studied the complex relationship between legality and illegality in the case of precarious workers’ collective bargaining (Aravena & Núñez, 2009; Vejar, 2014). These studies give a rich account of the porous nature of neoliberal labor legislation. While a series of legal devices prevents workers from organizing strikes (Ermida Uriarte, 2012), this has not prevented such strikes from occurring in countries such as Chile, where most strikes are organized outside the law (Medel & Pérez, 2017). Similarly, the work led by De la Garza (2011a, 2011b) at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana has resulted in rich case studies about the challenges that self-employment poses for labor regulation in Mexico. He shows how, faced with legal loopholes that leave them unprotected, workers have sought to improve their working conditions by resorting to innovative strategies such as exerting pressure on consumers, clients, or the state.

Studies have also moved beyond a top-down approach to understanding employment flexibility, even when they have not lost sight of the state’s role. This is most clear in studies of informality, where attention to macro-institutional changes has been accompanied by an increasing awareness of the relevance of labor enforcement practices (Bensusán, 2009b). Scholars have sought to understand the gap between law and practice, interviewing labor inspectors and visiting workplaces to understand the effects of labor and other civil society actors on working conditions (Coslovsky, 2014; Piore & Schrank, 2018). The study conducted in Argentina by Amengual (2014), for example, shows the advantages of a civil society with strong ties to labor inspectors in improving labor regulation.

Labor Unions’ Strategies and Identities

The dominant perspective when studying labor unions in Latin America has been a political one, for which these were collective movements dependent on what the state did (De la Garza, 2016b). During the peak years of labor union strength in Latin America, import substitution industrialization policies were common and governments used corporatist arrangements to control labor unions (De la Garza, 2001; Zapata, 1990). Current debates take place in a very different political and economic climate, given the neoliberal reforms that occurred throughout the 1990s and the resultant decline of labor mobilization (Posner et al., 2018).

Thus, researchers appear to be more interested in what occurs at the firm level. For example, research on Chile (Aravena & Núñez, 2009; Medel & Pérez, 2017; Véjar, 2012) and Argentina (Atzeni & Ghigliani, 2007; Serdar, 2012) has mapped the transformation of traditional trade unions, often linking them to changes occurring at the workplace. This has also been the case with traditional mining unions, such as the mineworkers’ organizations, which have been affected by subcontracting and by the disappearance of the traditional “town model” in which workers and their families live near the operations (Manky, 2017).

This shift from national dynamics is valuable, as the state has become one among many actors with whom unions engage. Scholars have thus developed a broader view about labor unions’ activities, focusing on their interactions with local communities (Selwyn, 2012; Svampa & Pereyra, 2009) or international organizations (Anner, 2003; Cotton & Royle, 2014).

Building on the social movement unionism literature (Almeida, 2006; Serdar, 2012) and union revitalization studies (Cató & Ventrici, 2011; Senén González & Del Bono, 2013), scholars have expressed considerable interest in possible paths toward union renewal in various countries. Studies in Argentina (Atzeni & Grigera, 2018; Etchemendy & Collier, 2008), Mexico (Hermanson & De la Garza, 2005), and even Brazil (Junckes, 2010; Ladosky, 2012) tend to be pessimistic, emphasizing the continuity of corporate ties, whereas in countries like Chile (Aravena & Núñez, 2009; Crocco, 2017) and Peru (Saravia, 2017) some studies have noted the movement’s rupture with its more established political traditions. Beyond these differences at the national level, there is plentiful research concentrating on the evolution of “traditional” cases, such as studies on auto workers (Anner, 2011b), teachers (Gindin, 2008), and mineworkers (Manky, 2018).

Therefore, despite the challenging environment in which organized labor finds itself, this is a vibrant research stream. Even in sites where unions are struggling because of an adverse political climate, researchers are looking at their dynamics in novel ways, as in the cases of Colombia and the violence against labor leaders (Dombois, 2012; Gill, 2007) or in Venezuela, where there have been struggles for an autonomous unionism (Lucerna & Iranzo, 2016).

In addition to these studies, there are remarkable comparative analyses, although most of them come from a political science perspective, such as those by Murillo (2001), Burgess (2004), Cook (2007), or Carnes (2014). Following the rich tradition of “Shaping the Political Arena,” by Ruth Berins Collier and David Collier (1991), these books attempt to understand the changing nature of the union-government relationship from a macro perspective. One blind spot worth noting is research focused on firm or even industry comparisons, which is surprising given the region’s potential for matched-pair designs. For example, comparing oil workers in Colombia and Venezuela, auto workers in Argentina and Mexico, or migrant workers’ organizations in Chile and Argentina would improve our knowledge of the region and its diverse union traditions. Some important exceptions are those by Anner (2011b), on the auto and apparel industries, or Bank, Kenny, and Stecher (2018), on Walmart.

A field of research closely related to trade union studies concerns labor identities. This topic has a long tradition in the region, dating to the 1930s when leftist academics were interested in how working-class identities could be formed in a nonindustrialized region (Mariátegui, 1979 [1928]). Debates regarding the dominance of peasant traditions over urban working-class culture were heated in a region where Marxism had a great impact on the social sciences (Dombois & Pries, 1994).

As De la Garza (2016b) notes, it was not until the late 20th century that subjectivity became a crucial concept in labor studies. Issues such as labor and ethnicity (Nash, 1993), as well as the link between political ideology and working-class culture (Parodi, 1986), would then become central topics for scholars. These works, like those explicitly incorporating a gender perspective in the labor identities discussion (Chinchilla, 1991; Safa, 1990), raised a series of important questions about intersectionality in labor studies.

The field has drawn on these advances and progressed. While discussions on labor identity initially focused on the “weakness” of working-class traditions in many countries (Portocarrero & Tapia, 1993), they no longer emphasize the region’s “deviation” in this regard vis-à-vis the industrial Global North. Rather, new debates attempt to capture the formation of labor identities. The best example is Enrique De la Garza’s project on the notion of “trabajo no clásico” [non-classic work] (De la Garza, 2011b, 2011a), through which a number of authors have theorized the nature of precarious work in Mexico by studying trades as diverse as street vendors, bus drivers, fast-food workers, and television extras. The concept of trabajo no clásico, therefore, allows researchers to move beyond the traditional image of work as a material production that takes place in a factory.

On a more theoretical level, De la Garza has critically reviewed the work of well-known authors such as Richard Sennett and Zygmunt Bauman, debating the potential to forge critical labor identities under contemporary capitalism. Research on subcontracted mineworkers (Donoso, 2013), agriculture workers (Mendez, 2005; Raynolds, 2002), or even unemployed workers (Kaese & Wolff, 2016; Svampa & Pereyra, 2009) shows how labor identities are being theorized as spaces of collective struggles. Similarly, Castronovo (2018) and Tovar (2018) analyze how textile workers and recyclers in Bogotá and Argentina, respectively, have built popular organizations that deploy new collective strategies to defend their labor interests, acting as spaces for political socialization.

Women’s participation in unions is another example of the emerging discussions around labor identities. Rodríguez (2006) summarizes the main challenges faced by Latin American women in participating. In addition, case studies recount the effort to incorporate more female perspectives in national labor federations, such as Delgado’s (2007) work on the partially successful experience of the Brazilian Central Única dos Trabalhadores or González’s (2003) research, which focuses on Mexico. The work of Aguayo (2012) on women in the Chilean salmon industry also provides a rich account of the emergence of female leadership at the grassroots level that is capable of framing its struggles through the politicization of women’s private lives.

Conceptual Discussions

Based on the findings of the studies presented here, this section presents three conceptual issues that, although not always explicit, illuminate the discussion on labor in the region.

The Scales of Labor

Over the course of the 20th century, social scientists argued that the dynamics of capitalism are not independent from those of imperialism in Latin America (Stern, 1988; Wallerstein, 2011). The dynamics of work in Latin America are different from those of the Global North, given its specific position in the capitalist world market (Cardoso & Faletto, 1979).

This interpretation was a crucial element in the development of labor studies. As Dombois and Pries (1994) argue, the region’s weak industrial sector, the importance of its export economy, and the inability of the formal labor market to incorporate most of the population, created a radically different context than that of the United States or Europe. Thus, while Global North labor studies focused on the emergence of an urban proletariat, Latin American studies developed a different approach to understanding the region’s unique proletarianization process. Labor historian Charles Bergquist (1986) argued that the first nucleus of organized working-class groups emerged in sectors linked to the world economy, often led by primary resources workers such as nitrate miners in Chile, coffee producers in Colombia, or petroleum workers in Venezuela.

This explains why research sites such as mines and plantations were key in Latin American labor studies. These sites were understood as enclave economies, geographic areas with weak economic linkages to the local firms and the national economy, under the control of foreign capital and specializing in the production of export goods with low value added (Arias, Atienza, & Cademartori, 2013). While economists suggested that enclave economies led to underdevelopment because they reduced their given country’s economic autonomy, labor scholars emphasized the bargaining power that workers enjoyed as they were located in the most modern (and profitable) sectors of the economy and thus had more power to press both the state and their employers for better conditions (Zapata, 1977).

Thus, labor studies have always paid attention to the links between different scales of union action. By the end of the 1990s there was an interest in phenomena such as neoliberal globalization and its effects on trade unions (Cook, 1999). The balance was negative for most of these studies, emphasizing that global actors undermined the collective organization of workers (Arango & López, 1999).

The economic, political, and organizational transformations over the last 20 years have changed the terms of the debate, but scholars remain interested in understanding the relationship between the local, the national, and the global. In this way, less pessimistic studies on the effects of “clusters” and “value chains” have emerged (Giuliani, Pietrobelli, & Rabellotti, 2005). In this paradigm, global investments could generate development, as globalization could help to build a growth strategy if the host economy were able to use such investments to create forward and backward linkages. Concepts such as “industrial districts,” “network organizations,” and “global production networks” began appearing with more regularity in the discourse around development, extolling the potential achievements of such structures as the Mexican maquila (Carrillo & Hualde, 2000).

A growing body of research has focused on the limitations of the “cluster” as a labor model, for example by showing that the international outsourcing model is unable to provide people with skills and good salaries (Anner 2011a; Bendesky, De la Garza, Melgoza, & Salas, 2004; De la Garza, 2016a). Similar debates about the economic benefits of globalization and the emergence of neo-enclave dynamics have also taken place in Colombia (Hough, 2010), Brazil (Selwyn, 2012), and Chile (Arias, Atienza, & Cademartori, 2013; Rainbird & Ramirez, 2012).

These new studies bring new elements to the discussion, for example regarding the possibility of using transnational networks in favor of the workers’ demands (Anner, 2011b). Whereas the “enclave” literature focused on foreign companies’ strategies of dealing with labor unions and criticized the Latin American governments’ inability to regulate labor relations, recent studies take a broader perspective on potential labor’s allies. Moving toward an integrated perspective allows for a more nuanced look at the changes in the relationship between global markets and unions. From this standpoint, recent studies have embraced labor geography (Herod, 2001) and its attempt to rethink how workers acting locally can respond to global capitals (Dinius & Vergara, 2011; Manky, 2017; Selwyn, 2011). From a different perspective, there are studies looking into the way global firms interact with local unions (De la Garza & Hernández, 2017) and on how global labor standards can become a source of labor power (Bensusán, 2009a; Locke, Rissing, & Pal, 2013; Piore & Schrank, 2018).

Conceptualizing the Nature of Work

Latin America’s “atypical” workforce—compared to the Global North’s model of organized industrial labor—has given rise to rich discussions regarding the best way to analyze it (Dombois & Pries, 1994; De la Garza, 2016b). Marginality, informality, and precarity are some of the conceptual tools used to contrast stable and regulated jobs,—which are the minority in the region,—and other forms of work. Between 1930 and 1960, most Latin American countries shifted from being mostly rural to places where the majority of the workforce lived in urban areas. However, urbanization and industrialization did not occur in tandem, and many migrants were excluded from formal labor markets (Quijano, 1998).

Although the term “marginality” was originally used to describe the condition of individuals who were excluded from the labor market and other “modern” institutional networks (Vekemans, 1970), its most common definition emerged in parallel with dependency theory, as a way to conceptualize a sector that could not be integrated into the dynamics of core capitalism. The “Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean” argued that “marginality” was not a temporary result of the shift from “traditional” to “modern” societies but a structural condition of peripheral societies. Drawing on Marx, Anibal Quijano (1968) argued that although capital’s failure to integrate people into wage labor markets was a “normal” phenomenon, the effects of such a failure were clearer in Latin America, given its subordinate position in the world system.

Although it was a useful concept for understanding the dynamics of underdevelopment, “marginality” was a problematic concept with which to analyze the labor movement, given its lack of an organizational perspective, its simplistic understanding of work relations in both the “core” and “marginal” areas of the economy, and its mechanistic view of labor politics (De la Garza, 2016b). Few studies embedded in this tradition looked beyond the “new” industrial workers and their national organizations (Weffort, 1968).

In the 1980s, “marginality” lost prominence and was supplanted by “informality” in public debates. First used in a 1972 International Labor Organization report on Kenya in an attempt to understand the behavior of workers under capitalism, the term soon evolved to encompass a broader view of economic activities that take place outside of state institutions (Quijano, 1998). This new conception, developed by Hernando de Soto (1989), gained popularity in Latin America as the limitations of import substitution industrialization–oriented policies became clear and neoliberal governments gained power.

Labor scholars soon started criticizing this perspective, which assumed that most participants in the informal economy were “underemployed” or “low-productivity” workers and thus drew on a dualist, overly simplified approach. Rather, Portes and Schauffler (1993) argue that there are formal strategies, such as subcontracting and outsourcing, that are intimately connected to the informal economy as these activities mask the “real” nature of employment relations by simulating contractual associations between companies. Informality therefore results from employer strategies to obtain profits in a dynamic market and, as formal and informal activities are part of the same economic structure, analyzing their interactions is crucial (Arnold & Bongiovi, 2013). As Rosaldo, Tilly, and Evans (2012) argue, “informal work relations exist throughout the economy in a variety of guises (salaried employment, self-employment, and domestic work) and at a variety of organizational scales, from the household to micro-enterprises, small businesses, large firms, and transnational corporations” (p. 3).

It is worth noting that, as with marginality studies, informality research was not particularly interested in analyzing the economic, political, or cultural features of the labor movement. With some remarkable exceptions (e.g., Cameron, 1991; Grompone, 1985), most scholars concerned with the labor informality phenomenon were economists and demographers, whereas many labor scholars focused on the formal side of the economy.

After the transformations of the 1980s and 1990s, and with the decline of industrial work in the region, new perspectives were opened. In particular, it is important to note the concept of “precariedad.” In contrast to the concepts of marginality and informality, which took root in Latin American studies, labor precarity first gained popularity in Europe and the United States, where it has been used to describe a context characterized by unstable jobs, atypical working hours, and low labor enforcement. Standing (2011), for instance, argues that precarious workers not only lack labor security and a stable income but also a work-based identity, which in turn affects their collective power.

This focus on workers’ employment insecurity has been useful in understanding different work arrangements from a labor perspective. For example, semiformal jobs that have been precarized as in much of the manufacturing industry (Manky, 2018); formal jobs that have been historically precarious as in the textile or agro-export industries (Selwyn, 2012); and the emergence of precarious working conditions under perfectly legal conditions as in subcontracting (Iranzo & Leite, 2006).

These phenomena are far from novel in Latin America, but the term “precariedad” is not only used as a synonym for exploitation. It is about understanding the way a nontraditional type of work ends up affecting collective action. One of the most innovative discussions about this concept has been developed in Brazil by Ruy Braga (2018), for whom precarity constitutes the reality of the less-qualified and poorly remunerated portion of the working class. Analyzing the Brazilian case, Braga shows that, even when the Workers Party was in power—a period during which many labor leaders gravitated to positions in public office—grassroots workers were discontented and ready to mobilize. The conditions in which precarity develops vary depending on each country’s political and economic traditions, yet Braga’s historical and ethnographic accounts open an important path to understanding the working conditions of labor today.

Enrique de la Garza (2016b) has proposed an “expanded concept of work” that includes processes of immaterial production, reproductive and family work, and groups of self-employed and small entrepreneurs. In sum, there are significant discussions about what it means to be a worker in Latin America, which has an effect on how collective mobilization processes are read.

Defining the Struggle: Exploitation and Commodification?

Traditionally, literature on collective action in Latin America focused on the labor movement. Throughout the 20th century, sociologists analyzed labor’s political dynamics, using exploitation as the key lens through which to interpret the region’s history. Some scholars, particularly those studying the Andes, argued that economic domination in Latin America took novel forms (Mariátegui, 1979 [1928]). The prevalence of Marxism in the region meant that the academy tended to focus on orthodox working-class-based research.

However, a change occurred when scholarly attention toward Latin American trade unionism decreased with the emergence of new social movements. In response to land and environmental conflicts, researchers shifted their traditional focus away from the labor movement and toward “new social movements,” such as those to protect the environment and indigenous organizations (Alvarez, Dagnino, & Escobar, 1998; Arce, 2015; Silva, 2012). As a consequence, in many countries the interest in the working class declined, given the weakness of the labor movement.

Drawing on Burawoy’s (2010) work, it seems that scholars sought to shift from focusing on exploitation to commodification. The former is part of the classic Marxist perspective that emerges from the experience of production and can unite workers as wage laborers. Commodification emerges from the experience of marketization, and it brings together people struggling for access to commodities such as land or water.

This shift away from classic Marxist positions on exploited workers has not undermined labor studies, which continue to evolve, but it did create barriers between the field and other research areas. For example, major studies on mining and other extractive industries seldom focus on workers’ experiences or struggles, obscuring the alliances between labor and local communities emerging at different sites (Bebbington et al., 2008; Dore, 2000). Similarly, urban studies, even those focusing on poverty, do not always engage with an analysis of labor and its collective dynamics. Whereas labor scholars have continuously focused on all these sites, the dialogue between these and more general lines of research has not been consistent.

As a consequence, labor scholars have missed an opportunity to provide insights into key problems. This is important because new research on social movements might ignore the fact that ongoing struggles outside the purview of the traditional employment relations framework (e.g., urban men employed in factories under standard arrangements) are, in fact, work-based. Three recent dynamics illustrate the connections between exploitation and commodification in the region and highlight the need to bridge these issues.

First, new forms of organizing to demand jobs are developing. After the region’s structural reforms, some workers were not only fired but, due to the economic crisis, unable to find new jobs. In other cases, foreign capital arrived in areas with weak labor supply, and instead of training and hiring local workers the companies brought in skilled migrants from larger cities. Whether the case involved urban workers fired after privatization or peasants supplanted by urban workers in the mining sector, relevant labor organizing efforts emerged. In Argentina, for example, the “piqueteros” organized around “sindicatos de desempleados” (unemployed labor unions) to support each other and to negotiate jobs with private companies (Iglesias, 2015; Kaese & Wolff, 2016). In the case of the extractive industries, demands have been made to give jobs to locals and, at least in some cases, employment seems to be just us important for communities as environmental concerns (Helfgott, 2017).

Second, there are increasing efforts in the public sphere to regulate employment relations beyond the traditional collective bargaining model. Taxi drivers, street vendors, and waste collectors have organized and mobilized for better employment conditions, but most scholars have not viewed their efforts through the lens of “exploited workers.” Rather, urban scholars frame labor demands as part of a commodification of public spaces. Yet, although they are not formally engaged in wage relations, there are in fact work rules governing these services as well as complex power relations between them, the states, and consumers (Donovan, 2008; Olivo, 2011; Pérez, 2011; Sarmiento, Tilly, de la Garza, & Gayosso Ramírez, 2016). These rules may not be formal or organized through a bureaucratic structure, but they can be understood through concepts such as work processes and labor organizing.

Finally, the emergence of different models of self-managed companies, such as the “fabricas recuperadas” (Magnani, 2003; Vieta, 2009) and “cooperativas de trabajo” (Piccinini, 2004), illustrates the complex linkages between commodification and exploitation. The former are factories closed during the 1990s’ crisis and later occupied and organized by labor. Although the best-known examples are found in Argentina, Brazil (Esteves, 2014; Melo, 2013) and Uruguay (Martí, Thul, & Cancela, 2014) have also experienced this phenomenon, forcing scholars to reconceptualize issues about production and social reproduction. As for “cooperativas de trabajo,” emerging research has shown that such cooperatives, originally created to provide independent workers a space to self-organize to provide services to private companies, have actually sidestepped the labor struggle and obscured labor relations by establishing a nonunionizable labor force (Leite, 2009; Lima, 2007). Both phenomena push researchers to consider how decommodification (of labor) can occur even as workers opt to continue laboring under poor working conditions.

These cases, often disregarded as part of the traditional “labor movement” canon, show that the key theoretical issue is not whether commodification is more important than exploitation but rather the links between these processes. Instead of drawing clear frontiers between asalariados [Waged worker] and desempleados [unemployed], empleados [employees] and trabajadores independientes [independent workers], and, more broadly, between work and nonwork, there is room to discuss their complex interactions. In this regard, Atzeni and Grigera (2018) propose an interesting debate regarding the need to go beyond “unions” as a key category and to focus on “non-unionized informal workers outside workplaces or with hidden/less visible forms of conflict and organization” (p. 5). For example, studying community-based organizations would allow a better analysis of the potential of collective action. In this regard, the discussion on the “solidarity economy” in the Brazilian case is also worth noting (Gaiger, 2013; Leite, 2009). This discussion would help to understand the extent of the shift from labor to other identity sources (ethnicity, gender, etc.) in the drive for collective action.


This article has summarized some of the main lines of research in labor studies in Latin America. The field has consolidated in several countries, such as Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, and has strengthened in others, such as Chile and Colombia. Despite the diversity of research, there is a continuing interest in the way unions have responded to work and employment transformations. Moreover, despite the multiplicity of challenges facing each country, there are some common concerns that future studies may consider, such as the links between trade unions’ strategies and the local, national and global scales in which they occur. Another key topic is the development of a broad view of the concept of “work” that allows us to recognize its many facets in a region in which the percentage of workers employed by large companies is much lower than that of Global North countries. Finally, in a context in which multiple actors of civil society are mobilized and new social movements continue to emerge, discerning the links among labor demands and others becomes crucial.


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