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Unfree Labor: Interdisciplinary Perspectives: Labor in Latin America

A Research Guide on Unfair/Unfree Labor

Welcome to the Labor in Latin America Research Guide

When a laborer is paid for their work, it is assumed that this type of labor is fair and adequately compensated. Through many cases seen in Latin America, paid labor can still be exploitative labor. This Library Guide shows how far reaching unfair labor can be within the auto industry, the banana industry, factory work, and child labor. While the wages seen in these work forces are low, workers also deal with health issues and the destruction of their native environment by global corporations. This is especially relevant in the exchange of goods between the United States and Latin America, causing a fluctuating increase in labor demand without concern over who performs the labor. Women and children have been common targets of exploitation in particular. Most of the sources compiled here focus on the early 2000s, with news articles from more recent years. We urge you to consider: in understanding how paid labor does not ensure safe working conditions, what could be done to ensure workers' rights?

Articles and Books

In the News

Map of Latin America

Visual Media

Film: Maquilapolis: City of Factories

This documentary was filmed by Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre in 2006. The film depicts the relationship in unfair labor practices between the U.S and Mexico border, with Tijuana, Mexico becoming the city center in factory work. Issues include unsafe working conditions that mostly women faced in these factories which were owned by multinational corporations. These factories also produced heavy amounts of unregulated waste that later ended up in the surrounding, low-income neighborhoods whose community members became the workforce of the factories. Health issues began to arise with the destruction of the environment with chemical waste. Sooner than later, the factories closed unexpectedly, leaving many unemployed and without their low wages. This story is told through the perspectives of Carmen Durán and Lourdes Luján, two factory workers telling their stories through video diaries.  

Film: The Devil's Miner

Filmmakers:  Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani

Year made: 2005

The film follows Basilio Vargas and his family of a mother and two younger siblings. With the absence of his father, Basilio has taken charge of his family by working in the Cerro Rico silver mine. Although this is a case of paid labor, Basilio is an example of impoverished children trapped under exploitative child labor. Working conditions include unstable mining shafts, risk of death and injury, and developing black lung disease. Historically, this mine has taken thousands of lives since silver was found in the 16th century. Now all that is left are the leftover minerals that keep Basilio and his family one step away from starvation. 


 This image depicts 14 year old Basilio Vargas and his younger brother Bernardino (left in the image) working in the silver mines of Bolivia.

Research tips

  • Make sure that articles are peer reviewed or are from trustworthy sources that include citations of reasonable sources.
  • If your college does not have the resource you need, try asking for an interlibrary loan. This means that you can get access to works from nearby libraries. You can also ask for your library to purchase the resource needed.
  • Search through multiple types of resources: videos, articles, books, etc…
  • Take notes while you read your sources. Even when it seems simple to understand you might not remember crucial details from the top of your head.  
  • Try finding a common link within your research. For example, within Latin America there are many contentious issues between countries and the United States. What has happened in the past can be traced back to why certain issues are still important or even glazed over in the present. Remember that historical context matters.
  • Look for varying perspectives from authors. Some works might have a historical, political, economic, anthropological approach, or it can be a combination of many perspectives. The strongest research is multivocal.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help from your peers. Collaboration makes your research stronger and can help you identify gaps in understanding.