When a million people swarmed onto the streets of Brazil in June last year there was consensus that the protest was a phenomenon of the “new middle class” — squeezed by corruption and failing infrastructure. As the Thai protests continue, these too are labeled middle-class: office workers staging flashmobs in their neat, pressed shirts.
However, what does “middle class” mean in the developing world? About 3 billion people earn less than US$2 a day, but figures for the rest are hazy.
Now, fresh research by International Labour Organization (ILO) economists shows in detail what has been happening to the workforce of the so-called “global south” during 25 years of globalization: It is becoming more stratified — with the rapid growth of what the ILO terms “the developing middle class” — a group earning between US$4 and US$13 a day. This group has grown from 600 million to 1.4 billion; if you include about 300 million on above US$13 a day, that is now 41 percent of the workforce, and on target to be more than 50 percent by 2017.
However, in world terms they are not really middle-class at all. That US$13 a day upper limit corresponds roughly to the poverty line in the US in 2005. So what is going on?
The ILO researchers mined data from 61 household surveys across the world to come up with these figures.
In the process they adopted a rough definition of the lifestyle of the sub-US$13 group. The key markers were: families had access to savings and insurance, were likely to have a TV in the home and to live in smaller households (four people). They would typically spend 2 percent of their income on entertainment — plus they would have better access to water, sanitation and electricity. These, then, are the “winners” from globalization: an expanding group for whom global growth has meant a serious rise in real income, year after year, compared with the recent near-stagnation of incomes for working and lower-middle-class families in parts of the developed world.
You might assume the “developing middle class” are mainly factory workers, but they are not. One of the most startling results of the ILO survey is that more than half the “developing middle class” works in the service sector. Factory workers form between 15 percent and 20 percent of each income group: They are spread from the destitute to the above-US$13 group. This, the researchers say, reflects the fact that the industrial sector of the global south now offers as much skilled, high-value work as it does sweated labor.
When Harvard economist Richard Freeman calculated the “great doubling” of the world’s workforce — as a result of global development and the entry of former communist states into the market — the assumption was that this would recreate a “proletariat” at the periphery of capitalism.
It did, but the ILO calculation is the strongest evidence to date that they are moving steadily toward stratification and more service-oriented work, just as its rich-world counterpart did in the 1960s and 1970s.
Go to the reality of being “new middle class” in Brazil, Morocco or Indonesia and the word “comfortable” does not spring to mind. It means often living in a chaotic megacity, cheek-by-jowl with abject poverty and crime, crowding on to makeshift public transport systems and seeing your income leach away into the pockets of all kinds of corrupt officials, middlemen and gray market people. This in turn has shaped what people protest about. There remain, of course, high-profile workers’ struggles: In Argentina there are still more than 180 occupied factories. The cotton city of El-Mahalla el Kubra in Egypt remains the kind of place that can pull a total work stoppage and, as in December 2012, declare “autonomy” from the government.