Harvesting Higher Wages

More than half of the world's worst jobs vanished in the last generation.


chartSome startlingly good news from the International Labor Organization’s World of Work 2014, released in May:

“In 1994, 39 per cent of the developing world’s workers were living with their families in extreme poverty (on less than US$1.25 in consumption per household member per day). By 2004, this figure had fallen to around 25 per cent and, by 2014, it is estimated to have fallen to 13 per cent. As a result, there are 417 million fewer workers living in extreme poverty now than there were two decades ago.”

What is happening? The world of very low-income work can be described in four short points:

1. An eighth of the world’s workers earn extremely low incomes.

By the ILO’s count, this morning 3.33 billion men, women, and children will make the trip from home to office, factory, construction site, shop, restaurant, and field.

About 375 million of these workers – one in every eight – will earn $1.25 or less by evening. (And their take-home pay will be lower still, since even a minimal 25 cents for lunch and 10 cents for transport takes more than a quarter of a $1.25 worker’s daily earnings).

Pullquote share icon. Share

About 375 million of these workers – one in every eight – will earn $1.25 or less by evening.

These are the world’s working poor: about 155 million in South Asia, 130 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 43 million in China and Southeast Asia, and the rest scattered around the Middle East, Haiti, the Andes, New Guinea, and other places with pockets of deep poverty.

2. Few extremely low-income workers earn regular wages.

About 22 percent of extremely low-wage poor workers are not paid at all. These are family members helping in subsistence farming, small shops, or similar work.

Another 62 percent are “own-account” informal workers – day-laborers and other temporary employees looking for odd jobs or seasonal work on plantations and construction sites.

Only about 15 percent of very poor workers get regular wages or paychecks, and likewise few work in places where safety, pay, and other benefits are inspected by local governments or international businesses and agencies.

3. Most extremely low-income workers are rural.

Pullquote share icon. Share

 Only about 15 percent of very poor workers get regular wages or paychecks

Nearly two-thirds of extremely low-income workers – 64 percent of them, or 240 million men, women, and children – are farmers or hired farmworkers.

By comparison, ‘industrial’ work in factories, mines, quarries, fishing boats, and construction sites employs about 65 million very low-income people.

Services, a much larger employer, account for the remainder of very low-income work in industries like maid work, deliveries, and so on.

Combining these percentages with the ILO’s 375 million-worker estimate, the world of extremely low-wage work looks like this:

Agriculture: ~240 million
Services: ~70 million
Industry**: ~65 million

** “Industry” in ILO’s definition includes manufacturing, construction, mining/quarrying, and fisheries.

Farms and fields are also where most child laborers work – the ILO’s 2012 estimate found 98 million of the world’s 168 million child laborers in agriculture.

Though little data exists for their earnings, a separate 2007 ILO study of child labor in four countries found them (though not always) often earning less than adults for comparable jobs, suggesting that the count of very low-income workers probably includes many of the world’s child workers.

4. Each day since 2007, the count of extremely low-income jobs has been dropping by about 53,000.

Pullquote share icon. Share

 98 million of the world’s 168 million child laborers are in agriculture.

The ILO’s estimates over time find the count of very poor workers down from 811 million in the early 1990s, to 491 million in 2007, to 375 million in 2013.

The child labor estimates don’t go as far back, but are also down: 245 million in 2000 to 215 million in 2008, and the 168 million for 2012.

Admitting uncertainties in measurement and daily fluctuations, this suggests that each day 32,000 boys and girls exit child labor, and 53,000 workers move out of very low-income life.

In effect, by the end of today’s workday, the world will have shed tens of thousands of its worst and most exploitative jobs, and a considerable number of children will have moved from labor sites to schools.

These are quiet and small shifts, unlikely to distract many people from the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of tomorrow’s morning news. But at the bottom, without attracting much attention, life appears to be getting better. goldbrown2


Ed Gresser is Executive Director of Progressive Economy, a Washington (D.C.)-based project of the non-profit GlobalWorks Foundation that is joined in the campaign to eliminate global poverty. Before joining GlobalWorks, Gresser served as Director of the Trade and Global Markets program and as interim President of the Democratic Leadership Council, and as Trade and Global Markets Director for the Progressive Policy Institute. He served as Policy Advisor to U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky during the Clinton Administration.

Click the RSS icon to subscribe to future articles by this author. RSS Feed