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The Necropolitics of Milei’s Labor Governance


Julieta Lobato is a PhD Candidate and lecturer in labor law at the University of Buenos Aires and visiting scholar at the Max Planch Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law.

Three months have passed since Javier Milei assumed power in Argentina, yet his administration has already ushered in a period of profound social upheaval, with poverty rates skyrocketing to nearly 60%. Milei’s frenetic style, staunch adherence to orthodox libertarianism, and use of direct violence in his political rhetoric and aesthetics (epitomized by the chainsaw imaginary) make his sudden ascent in Argentine politics difficult to dissect. While his electoral victory initially seemed to portend an era of radical change, his subsequent alignment with Argentina’s well-established right-wing party exposes a trend towards an intensification of classic neoliberal policies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of labor governance.

In the following, I present a brief analysis of Milei’s labor policies over these tumultuous past three months, examining their impact on both traditional formal labor markets and the emerging sector of Popular Economy Workers (PE workers). I then raise critical questions about the role of labor governance as a mechanism of what the postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe terms Necropolitics: a form of political power that shapes the social order by exposing large populations to in-between spaces of life and death.

Side-A: A Classic Neoliberal Déjà Vu?

Milei’s labor policy can be summarised in three main axes. The first involves the de-hierarchization of the Labor Ministry. One of Milei’s initial actions was to issue a “Necessary and Urgent Decree” (Decreto de Necesidad y Urgencia) to eliminate the Labor, Education, Culture, and Social Development Ministries, consolidating them under the “Ministry of Human Capital.” Subsequently, the government slashed the merged budget, initiated mass layoffs across these sectors, and froze State employees’ wages, even with a monthly inflation rate of 20.6% in January 2024.

Second, labor law deregulation unfolded through the mega-decree titled “Foundations for the Reconstruction of the Argentine Economy.” This mega-decree declared a public crisis and aimed to deregulate the economy, advocating for an economic system based on free decision within a framework of fair competition, respect for private property, and constitutional principles of the free circulation of goods, services, and labor (Article 2).

Essentially, this decree introduced several classic neoliberal labor deregulation measures: it incentivized informality by abolishing fines for unregistered employment (Articles 53-62), removed provisions acknowledging the power imbalance between labor and capital (Articles 67-68), promoted zero-hour contracts (Article 79), and endorsed individual unemployment funds over layoff indemnities (Articles 80-81), among many other measures. Regarding collective labor rights, the decree limited the ultra-activity of collective conventions (Article 86), criminalized the work of trade unionists (Article 88), and limited the right to strike by extending the catalogue of “essential services” (Article 97) in sharp opposition to ILO standards.  

In response to these aggressive deregulatory measures, trade unions leveraged a long-established tradition of legal mobilisation in the country and challenged the decree, which was eventually declared unconstitutional. These measures were also packaged in the omnibus bill, later rejected by the Congress and fiercely opposed by the General Strike on 24th, January, which garnered significant participation from trade unions, social movements, political parties, and society in general.

The final aspect of Milei’s labor governance pertains to the criminalization of strikes and social protests and the escalation of violence. On December 14th, 2023, the Ministry of Security introduced an “anti-protest protocol,” empowering police and security forces to intervene in social protests, initiate administrative proceedings against protesters, and hold the protestors accountable for security operation costs. In response, several international bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN Special Rapporteurs, have urged the Argentine government to cease using public force against society during social protests and strikes.

In summary, Milei’s right-wing populist government’s policies concerning the formal labor market closely resemble those of the initial neoliberal wave in the 1980s-1990s. However, distinct differences emerge. First, the pursuit of these measures involved an extreme authoritarianism, as Milei opted for decree issuance without engaging in dialogue or negotiation with political parties and social sectors, bypassing the Congress constitutional mandate. Second, the measures were accompanied by a rapid increase in hate speech and violence, particularly concerning social protests and strikes, but also involving broader social interactions. The closure of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI) exemplifies this trend. Finally, it is worth noting the significant role of traditional trade unions, with the historical General Labor Confederation (CGT) leading the resistance against Milei’s government both in the judicial arena and through collective action. During the 1990s, traditional trade unions were severely weakened and the resistance to neoliberalism was led by the emergence of a new labor subject: the Workers of the Popular Economy (PE workers).

Side-B: Targeting the New Labor Subject

Initially formed as The Movement of the Unemployed Workers in response to the dramatic rise in unemployment rates, PE workers challenge traditional labor law paradigms in two primary ways: first, by dissociating labor from formal employment, asserting that even when unemployed, a person remains a worker; and second, by emphasizing the importance of social reproduction work, thereby reshaping the conventional understanding of labor as primarily waged work.

Over the years, PE workers have gained increasing institutional recognition and have established dialogues and alliances with both the state and traditional unions. The National Register of Workers of the Popular Economy (RENaTEP) indicates that this sector comprises nearly 4 million workers, representing about 20% of the economically active population, with a majority being women (58%). Their occupations primarily include community services, cleaning, familial and peasant agriculture, and recovery, recycling, and environmental services, all central to social reproduction. PE workers receive a “Complementary Social Wage” through a public policy known as Potenciar Trabajo (Empower Work), which represents the equivalent to half the minimum wage (meaning approximately 170USD per month).

Recently, Milei’s government announced the dismantling of Potenciar Trabajo, replacing it with two separate programs: “Going Back to Work” and “Social Support Program.” The former targets people aged 18 to 49 and focuses on developing educational skills to facilitate their entry into formal labor markets, while the latter assists individuals over 50.

Despite the controversy over whether active labour market policies are successful, the real motive behind eliminating Potenciar Trabajo is to remove the intermediary role of PE worker organizations in the development and organization of labor within the territories. In his speech at the opening of Congress sessions, Milei referred to these organizations as the “managers of poverty” who “steal” people’s incomes to feed “spoils of war of left-wing organizations.” In early February, a massive social protest took place outside the Ministry of Human Capital, demanding action to address the food emergency the country is undergoing. The Minister in charge, Sandra Pettovello, replied that she was not going to talk to organizations and that if someone was hungry, she would receive them one by one. Therefore, people have been queuing outside the Ministry, forming lines that stretch more than 20 blocks in what has been called “The Hunger Queues.”

Whereas Potenciar Trabajo was contingent on participation in socio-productive, socio-labor, or socio-community projects, the new programs link income assistance to the individual development of educational and training skills. Thus, the transformation of Potenciar Trabajo seeks to atomize social conflict by weakening the power of PE workers’ organizations (echoing strategies from the first wave of neoliberalism against trade unions favoring enterprise collective bargaining over national and sectoral levels). This represents an attack on the core redefinitions proposed by PE workers — namely, who is a worker and what counts as socially valuable work — while also seeking to erode their socio-political identity, portraying them as isolated individuals benefiting from direct state transfers and social policies.

The Necropolitics of Labor Governance

Traditional legal scholarship on labor precarization under neoliberalism fails to fully capture the inherent violence in these processes. The eradication of intermediary organizations, coupled with employment deregulation, austerity measures affecting different aspects of social life (such as housing, education, and healthcare), and the violent repression of social protests, functions to allocate life opportunities in a context where poverty escalates on a daily basis. Indeed, many protest banners during recent demonstrations proclaimed, “Violence is to die of starvation.” The concept of Necropolitcs better captures the violence inherent in Milei’s labor governance, insofar as it brings to the fore the role of labor governance in framing certain lives as disposable.

Building on Foucault’s notion of Biopolitics, Mbembe introduced the concept of Necropolitics as “contemporary forms of subjugating life to the power of death.” He argues that, in our current moment, political power shapes geographical spaces (death-worlds) where certain individuals (living dead) are compelled to exist under conditions that constantly expose them to the risk of death. Thus, necropolitics captures the complex interface between neoliberal/post-neoliberal labor governance, violence, and the production of precarity. This shifts the focus from large-scale sites of necropolitical power — such as wars and colonial-imperial invasions — to the everyday death-worlds resulting from the rampant expansion of market logic to increasing areas of social life.

This concern is heightened when considering another significant actor in the Latin American context: illegal groups and organized crime linked to the Narco-business. The state transformations of the 1990s, marked by the retreat from providing basic social rights combined with economic liberalization, have empowered Narco groups, whose presence has since expanded, as evidenced by the current crisis in Ecuador.

In this context, involvement in the illegal economies increasingly becomes an attractive option for marginalized people unable to access formal employment, particularly among young people hindered by structural poverty from pursuing further education. With the decline of the state-sponsored social inclusion — the longstanding promise of the welfare state — these functions are now partially assumed by illegal groups, organizing themselves through territorial disputes, violence, and alternative labor structures within illegal economies. Notably, dollarization — a cornerstone of Milei’s political agenda — facilitates and accelerates the formation of illegal economies.

The social inclusion function assumed by illegal groups encompasses at least two central aspects: providing income for subsistence, and affording social recognition and status to marginalized people frequently labelled as vulnerable populations with no agency whatsoever or as passive recipients of social assistance. Consequently, this not only alters economic and transnational circuits of capital accumulation but also grants Narco groups social legitimacy to confront and challenge state authority directly over territory, as in Ecuador’s current situation. This process is not sudden but rather a historical accumulation of economic, social, and political power, with labor allocation playing a central role.

Against this backdrop, the emergence of PE workers during the first neoliberal era served as a counterbalance to the shrinking formal labor markets and the growing influence of illegal groups and organized crime. This is because PE worker organizations foster new communal modes of labor and living, driven not by profit but by the reproduction of social life and solidarity. They rebuild social fabric in a time where imagining life together with others (humans, non-humans, and nature) increasingly feels like a utopian endeavour. In the era of cannibal capitalism, the struggles of PE workers offer tangible ways to re-enchant the world and oppose a politics of a life-together to the necropolitics advanced by contemporary authoritarian right-wing regimes.