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  • Writer's pictureLeura Dalla Riva

Dependency and Super-exploitation in Latin America

                          Author: Leura Dalla Riva

Translated by: Ligia Payão Chizolini

This essay aims to analyze introductory aspects related to super-exploitation in the peripheral capitalism of Latin America based on the theory of dependence. As discussed in other texts published by Ruptura, dependence is one of the factors that must be considered when addressing contemporary socio-environmental problems in Latin America.

The set of studies known as the 'Theory of Dependence' in Latin America began in the 1960s by intellectuals and activists, especially from the Brazilian left [1]. Within the Theory of Dependence, the economy and society of Latin American countries are analyzed as products of the European colonization process and as structures conditioned by the development of capitalist mode of production, first in Europe and then in the United States [2].

The idea of 'super-exploitation' is one of the branches of the theory of dependence, marked by the works of André Gunder Frank and Ruy Mauro Marini, which allow visualizing Latin American dependence as a structural challenge of the continent, linked to the functioning of the global capitalist system and not exclusively to internal factors of the continent's countries. Gunder Frank demonstrates that the development of certain regions necessarily implies the underdevelopment of others, and this mechanism is reproduced at the international, national, regional, and local levels [3]. Marini systematized the concepts of 'super-exploitation' and 'sub-imperialism' by analyzing the Latin American context [4].

As Mathias Seibel Luce explains, in Brazil, the super-exploitation of labor can be evidenced by four elements highlighted by Marini: a) the payment of labor below its value; b) the extension of the working day; c) the increase in work intensity; and d) the increase in the historical-moral element of the value of labor without an increase in remuneration. In Brazil, the first aspect of super-exploitation can be evidenced by calculating the necessary minimum wage (SMN), which is the amount required to cover the expenses of the worker and their family for housing, food, education, health, leisure, clothing, hygiene, transportation, and social security - aspects that must be covered by the minimum wage, as determined constitutionally in Brazil. In summary, as Mathias Seibel Luce points out, the SMN seeks to 'trace the evolution of the purchasing power of the legal minimum wage in relation to the quantity and types of use values recognized as necessary for a worker to sustain himself and his family'[5].

Analyzing the data provided by the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (DIEESE) [6] for June 2023, it is observed that the 'necessary minimum wage' (SMN) in Brazil should be R$ 6,578.41. However, the nominal minimum wage (official value established by the government) applied in the country during the period is only R$ 1,320.00, which is less than 1/4 of the amount needed to cover the mentioned expenses. Similarly, considering the concrete data from IBGE in the Continuous National Household Sample Survey (PNAD Contínua), Brazilians receive an average salary of approximately R$ 2,880.00 in June 2023, which is still less than half of the necessary value [7].

In other words, 'the salary does not reach a sufficient amount for the worker to replenish the wear and tear of his labor force,' indicating a context of super-exploitation. In this scenario, Luce emphasizes that even with the increase in the purchasing power of the minimum wage (i.e., an increase in the nominal minimum wage and adjustments based on inflation) carried out by Brazilian governments - especially the left-wing progressive ones (Lula and Dilma, from 2002 to 2016 and from 2022 to today) - it did not actually mean a reduction in the super-exploitation suffered by Brazilian workers, as their labor force is still being remunerated well below what is necessary. For the same reason, even the increase in formal employment rates in the country during the new Lula government does not signify a change in the precarious living and working conditions in Brazil [8].

Mathias Seibel Luce also points out that even if labor in Brazil were paid the 'necessary value,' there are other mechanisms that perpetuate the dependent situation of the Brazilian economy. The author emphasizes that 'Between 2003 and 2009, on average 40% of Brazilian workers worked weekly hours exceeding 44 hours, that is, more than the normal working hours.' To better illustrate the issue, it is worth comparing the Brazilian reality with the European one [10]. Considering the average salary and the average duration of working hours, there is an average salary in Brazil of €533 monthly, while in a European country like Italy, for example, it corresponds to €1587.05. Furthermore, while the average working hours in Brazil are about 40 hours per week, in Italy, for example, it is approximately 36 hours per week. The long working hours in the country are, therefore, a second factor that also highlights the situation of super-exploitation in the Latin American context and, consequently, dependence. Central capitalist countries like Germany have recently been debating the reduction of the working week to 34 hours.

The third highlighted mechanism corresponds to the increase in work intensity and the wear and tear of workers, which can be measured by indices involving diseases and workplace accidents in the Brazilian context [11]. According to data from the Observatory of Safety and Health at Work, between 2002 and 2022, the number of workplace accidents in the country almost doubled, going from 393,071 to 612,920 [12].

The fourth aspect considered as an example of super-exploitation in a dependent capitalist context concerns the historical-moral element of the value of labor, that is, the use-values that are or are not considered essential in the sociability of a particular period. In other words, 'the material development of society and the generalization of new goods transform these new goods into necessary goods in determined periods.' New technologies would be an example of these new necessary goods in contemporary sociability. In a dependent capitalist economy, however, technical innovations and luxury goods are not popularized to the same extent as they would be in a central economy. For workers to have access to these new consumer goods, they submit to indebtedness or extraordinary workloads. This reality is easily seen in credit facilitation policies and encouragement of consumption through installment payments, which have gained even more space in Brazil in the 21st century [14].

In addition to these elements that express the reality of super-exploitation in the Brazilian labor market, the situation worsened in recent years due to the implementation of neoliberal reforms by the State, such as the flexibilization of labor legislation (authorizing mechanisms such as flextime, opening of Sunday trade, sale of vacations, and reduction of lunch breaks, among other aspects), the pension reform (which made retirement difficult for Brazilians), and the establishment of the 'spending ceiling' by the Temer government through Constitutional Amendment No. 95/2016 (which limited the country's primary expenses - including health and education, for example - for a period of 20 years).

References and Notes:


[1] Vania BAMBIRRA. Teoría de la dependencia: una anticrítica. Mexico: Era, 1978, p. 15-20

[2] As clarified by Vania Bambirra, it is not possible to analyze the reproduction process of the dependent capitalist system detached from the analysis of the global capitalist system because the dependent reproduction of socio-economic structures goes through the ‘exterior', meaning that the accumulation of capital in Latin American countries necessarily begins with the importation of machinery from developed countries. This is how the author explains it: “[...] en un primer momento los sectores I (bienes de producción) y II (bienes de consumo manufacturados) están en el exterior, luego, con el desarrollo del proceso de industrialización, el sector II se desarrolla en el seno de varias de las economías latinoamericanas pero el sector I no; para que el sistema se reproduzca tiene que importar maquinaria. A partir de los años cincuenta el sector I empieza a ser instalado en América Latina (en algunos casos antes) pero sigue dependiendo, para su funcionamiento propio y expansión, de maquinaria extranjera. Esta maquinaria, a partir de este periodo, no llega como mercancía-maquinaria sino como capital-maquinaria, es decir, bajo la forma de inversiones directas extranjeras. [...] Esta es la especificidad de la reproducción dependiente del sistema: la acumulación de capitales pasa por el exterior a través de la importación de maquinaria [...] luego, cuando ésta empieza a ser producida internamente [....] está controlada directamente por grupos extranjeros, y si bien ya empieza a suplir las necesidades de máquinas del sector II — que por cierto también pasa a ser controlado en gran parte por el capital extranjero — sigue dependiendo de la maquinariacapital del sector I de los países capitalistas desarrollados. BAMBIRRA, Teoría de la dependência, cit. p. 26-29.

[3] In the author words: “las metrópoles tienden a desarrollarse y los satélites a subdesarrollarse”. Andre Gunder FRANK. El desarrollo del subdesarrollo. Pensamento crítico, Habana, n° 7, ago. 1967, p. 165.

[4] Ruy Mauro MARINI. América Latina, dependencia y globalización. Compilador Carlos Eduardo Martins. Bogotá: CLACSO y Siglo del Hombre Editores, 2008

[5] In the author words: “To calculate the Minimum Wage Index (SMN), DIEESE produces a survey of the average price of the thirteen food products listed in Decree-Law No. 399/1938, in the quantities specified therein. Subsequently, the aggregate monthly expenditure of each product is calculated. Considering the typical family unit as composed on average of two adults and two children, with a child's consumption equivalent to half that of an adult, the monthly price of the basic basket of goods from DIEESE is multiplied by three. The result is then multiplied again by the weight of inflation as a percentage of the proportion that food represents among the essential expenses of a family in relation to the other items evaluated by the Cost of Living Index (ICV), which are also included in the consumption basket of the SMN” LUCE. A superexploração da força de trabalho no Brasil, cit., p. 145-150.

[6] Brasil. Departamento Intersindical de Estatística e Estudos Socioeconômicos (DIEESE). Pesquisa nacional da Cesta Básica de Alimentos. Salário-mínimo nominal e necessário. Available at: Acessed: 10 oct. 2023.

[7] Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios Contínua - PNAD Contínua. 2023. Available at: Accessed: 10 oct. 2023.

[8] LUCE, A superexploração da força de trabalho no Brasil, cit., p. 145-150.

[9] Ibidem, p. 153-154.

[10] Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Better Life Index. Available at: Accessed: 10 oct. 2023; Preciosmundi. Comparação de preços de produtos e serviços entre Brasil e Itália. Outubro 2023. Disponível em: Accessed: 10 oct. 2023.

[11] Seibel Luce highlights the example of workers in the sugarcane and ethanol sector – one of the main sectors of the Brazilian agro-export economy: "According to a study on manual sugarcane cutters working in the interior of São Paulo, each worker cuts 400 kg of cane in just ten minutes, delivering 131 machete blows and flexing their trunk 138 times. At the end of a day's work, after numerous sequences of repetitive and strenuous operations, the average worker registers: 11.5 tons of cane cut, 3,792 machete blows, and 3,994 spinal flexions. As a result, life expectancies do not exceed 35 years of age."”. LUCE, A superexploração da força de trabalho no Brasil, cit., p. 157-158. About the subject: cfr. BEVIAN, Elsa. O adoecimento dos trabalhadores com a globalização da economia e o espaço político de resistência. 1. Ed. Empório do Direito. 2017.

[12] Observatório de Segurança e Saúde no Trabalho. SmartLab. Brasil, Frequência de Notificações – CAT. 2021. Available at: Accessed: 13 oct. 2023.

[13] OSORIO apud LUCE, A superexploração da força de trabalho no Brasil, cit., p. 159.

[14] In this regard, Seibel Luce emphasizes that ‘What the government discourse and academics aligned with the officialdom do not want to reveal is that the celebrated increase in the consumption of household appliances by the so-called C class, which would supposedly be the 'new middle class,' largely occurred based on the indebtedness of families.” LUCE, A superexploração da força de trabalho no Brasil, cit., p. 159-160.


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