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The Precarious Present: Wageless Labor and Disrupted Life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Kathleen M. Millar

Cite As:
Millar, Kathleen M. 2014. “The Precarious Present: Wageless Labor and Disrupted Life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 1: 32–53.


This article explores the relationship between precarity as a labor condition and precarity as an ontological experience in the lives of urban poor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The focus is on a garbage dump on the outskirts of the city where thousands of Rio’s poor, known as catadores, reclaim recyclables for a living. Attending to cyclic moments in which these workers leave the dump for other jobs and then return, I explore how everyday emergencies in Rio’s periphery often clash with the rigid conditions of regular, wage-labor employment. These comings and goings of catadores result from a tension between the desire for “real” work and the desire for what I describe as relational autonomy, made possible by the conditions of wageless work. The article considers how specific histories and experiences of capitalism in the global South differentially shape the articulation of precarious labor with precarious life. I conclude by suggesting that the returns of catadores to the dump do not signal an end for Rio’s poor, but rather constitute a politics of detachment that enables life to be lived in fragile times.


precarity; urban poverty; unwaged labor; waste