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I know the difference between por and para, but I'm confused by these particular usages. I've seen both of them in various places. 'Trabajar para' seems to mean to work for, whereas 'trabajar por' seems to be to work on behalf of. Is there any difference between them? How should I pick which one to use?

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"Trabajar para <alguien>" means to work for someone else:

Él es mi empleado. Trabaja para mí.
He is my employee. He works for me.

"Trabajar por <algo>" means to work to advance one's own cause or ends:

Él trabaja por sus hijos.
He works for his children's sake.


UPDATE: As suggested by @Trufa, "trabajar por <alguien>" could mean to work in place of someone else:

Ella no puede venir hoy. Hoy él trabajará por ella.
She cannot come [to work] today. Today he will perform her duties.


This is quite flexible, though, and some people use "trabaja para" when they should use "trabaja por":

Él trabaja para ver hechos realidad sus sueños. (incorrect, but common)
Él trabaja por ver hechos realidad sus sueños. (correct)
He works to see his dreams become true.

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Trabaja por alguien can be interpreted also as working for someone to replace him in his absence temporarily. –  Trufa Dec 10 '11 at 6:21
    
@Trufa: I would use "trabajar en lugar de" instead of "trabajar por". But, then, I am a little too obsessed when it comes to non-ambiguity. –  Eduardo León Dec 10 '11 at 13:58
    
Fair enough, at least in Uruguay, that would be far too formal for the average conversation. –  Trufa Dec 10 '11 at 14:17
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@Trufa You should end your comments here with "¿Tá?". Just for authenticity :D –  belisarius Dec 10 '11 at 15:43
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@belisarius hehey! long time on see! I might say the same thing for you with "boludo". ;) –  Trufa Dec 10 '11 at 17:31
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The most common uses:

You'd use "por" in case of contract type:

  • trabaja por cuenta ajena; (hired work)
  • trabaja por cuenta propia / trabaja por libre; (freelance)
  • trabaja por horas;

You'd also use "por" in case of the work's objective:

  • trabaja por la paz en el Medio Oriente;

You'd use "para" in case of employee/employer relation:

  • trabaja para la empresa X;
  • trabaja para su jefe;

Less common uses:

  • trabaja por internet; (working remotely via Internet)
  • trabaja por Juanito; (meaning: he's working as Juanito's temp replacment)
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