The Lower Class

Portugal Table of Contents

Portuguese have long used the all-encompassing term o povo to describe the lower class. O povo means "the people," but the term has a class connotation, as well. Analysts of Portuguese society have postulated that o povo encompasses perhaps four main groups, including agricultural workers who either owned or did not own land and organized and unorganized labor in urban areas.

Ownership of land was the main criterion for subdividing the poor in rural areas. There was a strong regional difference in ownership. Portugal's north was noted for its small farms and self-employed small farmers. Farmers who owned land tended to be independent, rather conservative, and strongly Catholic in their beliefs. They tended to vote for the center and center-right political parties. Within this class of smallholders, some were better off than others. Some were obliged to work part-time on other farms. Many offspring of smallholders migrated to the cities or emigrated abroad. Their female relatives often remained behind to till the land.

The rural poor of the south in the Alentejo, like those of the north, were often referred to as "peasants," but that catchall term obscured important regional differences between these two groups. Relatively few of the o povo in the Alentejo owned their own land. Instead, they worked on the region's large estates, some full-time, others perhaps only two days a week. Their politics were often radical, and, in contrast to the smallholders of the north, they tended to vote for socialist and communist parties. The Alentejo was the area most strongly affected by the Revolution of 1974, and many of the large estates were nationalized and designated for agrarian reform or were taken over in a land seizure by their workers.

Urban areas also had two major groups of the working class, mainly defined in terms of whether or not they were politically organized. The unorganized lumpen proletariat, usually recent arrivals from the countryside, were often unemployed or underemployed. Members of the urban working class who belonged to labor unions were considerably better off and could be regarded as the "elite" of Portugal's lower classes.

The lumpen proletariat lived in urban slums, the most extensive of which were in Lisbon. Migrants from the countryside, they were often illiterate and not members of a labor union. Many could find no regular work but were employed in menial jobs on a part-time basis. The slums they lived in were often partly hidden from view behind walls or fences and even in the early 1990s frequently lacked electricity, water, and sewerage systems. The housing in these slums was often fabricated from any available materials, including fiber glass, cardboard, and tin; hence, these areas were called in Portuguese bairros de lata-- neighborhoods of tin. In addition to physical hardships, slum dwellers had to contend with violence and crime. Portugal's increasing prosperity since the second half of the 1980s had not yet been sufficient to efface these districts, which looked as if they were part of the Third World.

Portugal's organized working class had a better standard of living than did the unskilled and unorganized poor. Their salaries were relatively high, and they were strongly entrenched in Portugal's key industries. Portugal had a long history of urban trade unions. Under Salazar's corporative system they were strictly controlled, but after the Revolution of 1974 they became major actors in the political system and had managed to secure decent wages for their membership.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress