Crowds line the street at the main market in Guayaquil
Courtesy World Bank
Selling roasted bananas in Guayaquil
Courtesy World Bank
The urban lower class had its roots, as a distinct social
group, in the artisans of colonial society. Artisans were
ethnically and socially separate from the mass of Indian laborers
employed in the textile factories. Typically lower-class Spaniards
or mestizos, artisans provided the urban elite with finished goods,
especially luxury items. They were politically powerless. The local
municipal council (cabildo) controlled the movement of
artisans from their city of residence and regulated the details of
workshop organization, labor practices, prices, and production.
The urban working class took on its contemporary configuration
with the onset of industrialization in the twentieth century.
Manufacturing remained heavily in the hands of artisans, but largescale industries such as food processing, textiles, and the
railroads began to employ significant numbers of workers.
A renewed industrialization drive beginning in the 1950s,
increased levels of rural to urban migration, and the oil
development of the 1970s all contributed to the growth and
diversity of the contemporary urban working class. Workers in
stable, well-established enterprises represented the most heavily
unionized portion of the lower class and counted as an articulate,
well-organized voice in political affairs. These employees earned
steady wages and received the benefits of social security and
worker protection legislation
(see Political Forces and Interest Groups
, ch. 4).
Few workers enjoyed such benefits, however; the vast majority
were classified as artisans or self-employed. Artisan firms ran the
gamut from small, family-run businesses to middling manufacturing
enterprises employing as many as thirteen workers. Self-employment
typically offered little in the way of economic security. The mass
of street vendors, carpenters, tailors, painters, and the like
worked long hours for low earnings. In the mid-1970s, nearly onequarter of peddlers were classified as living in poverty; more than
30 percent of craftsmen and artisans also fell below the poverty
In addition to economic differences, the various segments of
the working class were divided in other ways. Clerical workers and
most white-collar workers considered themselves as superior to the
rest of the working class because of education and, frequently,
ethnic affiliation. The needs of wage earners for benefits and a
living wage often conflicted with the interests of the more
prosperous artisans, who needed to hire cheap labor.
The volume of permanent and temporary migration from the 1960s
to the 1980s changed the configuration of the urban working class.
Temporary was a relative concept for many migrants: for example,
surveys of Quito temporary construction workers in the early 1980s
found they had worked in the city for an average of six years.
Migrants followed a well-trod path to urban employment, relying on
fellow villagers and kin who had made the transition earlier.
The informal sector offered a haven of sorts to many unskilled
and uneducated migrants and first-time job seekers. Although
fiercely competitive and usually poorly remunerated, it fit with
the limited capital commanded by most of these workers. It cost
relatively little to build a kiosk and stock it with secondhand
goods, clothes, newspapers, and the like. Some ambulatory vendors
or kiosk sellers obtained higher-cost items on consignment. Only a
minimal cash outlay was required to repair electrical appliances in
a corner of one's home or to do laundry or cook and sell food. Such
endeavors also permitted the use of unremunerated family labor and,
for women, meshed well with the demands of child care. Migrants
also gained an entry into the city by selling fruits and vegetables
from their villages.
The construction boom fueled by oil development in the 1970s
generated considerable employment for temporary migrants to Quito.
Labor contractors congregated at certain well-known meeting places
in the city to gather the workers they needed. Construction offered
unskilled recent male migrants (and minimally educated first-time
job seekers in general) positions that were poorly remunerated,
insecure, nonunionized, and untouched by most worker protection
legislation. Nonetheless, such work provided the beginning of an
urban livelihood. A fortunate migrant might form compadrazgo
(the set of relationships between a person or couple, their
parents, and their godparents) ties with a labor contractor--thus
obtaining a better chance at regular employment. Some seemingly
menial jobs, depending on the individual's circumstances, offered
significant advantages. To receive a hut on the job premises in
order to guard the construction materials and tools at night, for
example, solved the worker's housing dilemma and allowed him to
bring his wife, who then could earn income by cooking and washing
for other laborers. Migrants who stayed in the city usually became
master craftsmen in a construction trade, but some, especially
those who remained identifiably Indian, often remained in menial
Both temporary and permanent migrants sought to maintain ties
with families in the countryside. Temporary migrants' work
schedules remained tied to the agricultural cycle. Those workers
returned home for planting and harvest and, whenever possible,
weekend visits. A migrant's involvement in farm work was a
sensitive barometer of his or her ultimate intentions. An end to
routine participation in the agricultural cycle marked completion
of the gradual switch from temporary to permanent city dweller.
Although most migrants did not send remittances home, those who did
increased the earnings of a one- to five-hectare plot by an average
of one-third. Even permanent migrants occasionally returned to the
village for the local patron saint's feast. If a migrant had enough
money, he or she bought land--typically leaving the holdings to be
farmed by a relative.
Workers made some gains during the economic expansion of the
1970s. Employment was plentiful, and earnings generally kept pace
with inflation. Even this prosperity was relative, however; in
1975, for example, 43 percent of the urban work force received less
than the minimum wage. The economic crisis of the early and mid1980s hit the working class particularly hard. The number of
workers totally unemployed reached 10 percent in 1986. Those
classified as "subemployed by income" rose from 29 percent of the
work force in 1970 to 40 percent in 1980. By the end of 1986, the
average worker's salary met roughly half of a family's basic needs.
Data as of 1989