Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Heterogeneity, Work, and Mobilisation: Recent Works in Latin American Labour Studies

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Heterogeneity, Work, and Mobilisation: Recent Works in Latin American Labour Studies

Article excerpt

DURING THE PAST DECADE, scholarship on labour has been driven by efforts to widen definitions of work and workers' coping strategies. In order to understand the ways that human beings have experienced global capitalism in the present and the past, it is imperative that we create analytical lenses that do not limit labour to the domain of male, wage earners, or trade union mobilisations. (1) Some have even identified Latin America and regions outside of the North Atlantic as significant contributors to this project. (2) Indeed, the four texts reviewed in this essay approach labour from the disciplines of history, anthropology, and political science and present us with a heterogeneous workforce of women and men, engaging in paid and unpaid agricultural, industrial and household labour. They have mobilized in unions and other organizations both within and across racial, class, and national lines. How do labourers and those who study them make sense of this heterogeneity? What new problematics emerge from this heterogeneity for workers trying to mobilize or for scholars trying to analyze them?

In contemporary Latin America, the nature of work and the composition of the workforce are undergoing profound transformations. Structural adjustment policies have caused people to engage in forms of agricultural, household, and industrial wage labour in many parts of the region that were not available a few decades ago. In Mexico and Central America, this has entailed an increase in the number of women and adolescents engaging in wage labour and has produced a new commodification of household work. While the individuals and activities associated with wage labour are changing, so are analytical definitions of work. Widening categories of what constitutes work sheds new light on forms of unpaid and subsistence labour in the present and the past.

Changes in the composition of the workforce and the way it is defined by scholars pushes research into the diverse strategies that labourers have employed to improve their working and living conditions. Union organizing, the traditional strategy of working class mobilization, remains a viable option for many in Latin America. However, political and economic shifts have changed the way these organizations interact with employers and state institutions, encouraging many to ally with other types of groups across national and class lines. While some are analyzing new forms of union politics, others are identifying the historical and contemporary ways that Latin American labourers have sought to shape their lives by pursuing individual and collective strategies that involve joining both public and private institutions.

The untidy picture that emerges is not necessarily unique to Latin America. The texts' broad definitions of labour and workers' coping strategies, their attempts at situating workers in larger political economies, and the transnational nature of their analyses place them squarely within ongoing scholarly trends in Atlantic and global labour studies. (3) Showing the proletariat in all of its "motleyness" (4) has benefits that surpass the inclusion of previously ignored individuals into existing narratives about how humans experience global capitalism, though this is extremely important in and of itself; it also challenges us to reflect on how internal divisions within the labour force structure processes of work, identity formation, and mobilization.

In the spirit of this broader project, this essay will analyze the four texts for what they tell us about Latin American workers, before moving on to their contributions to larger questions facing global labour studies and the world's labouring peoples. It will begin by treating the arguments of each of the four books in a way that adumbrates the transformations in Latin American labour from the early part of the 20th century to the present. Focusing on the theme of workers' heterogeneity, it will then analyze the books' contributions to two broader questions. …

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