The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Continuity and Change in Labor Codes in Latin America

Posted in Events

April 14, 2010
Kalmanovitz Initiative Seminar Series:
“The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Continuity and Change in Labor Codes in Latin America,”
Professor Matt Carnes, S.J.

When do labor laws protect workers from workplace risks, and when do they serve to institute or insulate the privilege of particular political and economic actors? Come hear Prof. Matt Carnes of the Georgetown University Government Department discuss the Latin American experience with labor codes.

As a scholar and priest, Matthew Carnes bridges the academic and spiritual worlds with a focus on labor and social welfare policy. His regional interest in Latin America traces back to service work in Ecuador and Paraguay, where he was shocked by the unequal distribution of wealth he encountered while working on immunization projects in rural villages. For Carnes, the holes in the social safety net came into sharper contrast while doing relief work in Honduras following the destruction of Hurricane Mitch. Subsequent work with families of the disappeared among the Christian Base Communities in Chile helped set the trajectory of his career as, in his words, “an advocate and student, scholar and servant,” pursuing the goals of greater economic justice and broader access to social services. For Carnes, such pursuits cannot only be normatively motivated, but also must be informed by “rigorous and well thought out answers based on solid research and a careful consideration of the incentives and institutions that foster just social relations.”

Carnes entered the Jesuit order in 1992, eventually planning to combine his paired vocations of scholarly research and religious service, later completing his PhD in political science at Stanford. Through the course of his graduate training, he traveled extensively in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. He observed that in Latin America, organized labor has been a central actor in the political arena in pushing for (and occasionally limiting) the universal provision of social welfare. This has produced a paradox of conflicting reforms in the region, with the privatization of many social services coexisting with resilient and quite protective labor codes, segmenting the labor market and calling into question how social services will be administered and distributed in the future. For Carnes, the need for just treatment in the workplace and basic floors for retirement security and health care must be met both by traditional labor protections and newer policy innovations such as conditional cash transfers. Such policy puzzles motivate his research into labor law, pension and health care reform in Latin America.

After spending a year as a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute of International Studies at Notre Dame, Carnes came to Georgetown, where he is an assistant professor of government. Being at Georgetown “allows me to work with people doing cutting edge research and writing,” he says, while DC “provides a unique opportunity to dialogue with others who can put those ideas into practice.” Carnes presented a talk entitled, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Continuity and Change in Labor Codes in Latin America” for the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s interdisciplinary seminar on labor studies on Wednesday, April 14 at Georgetown.