Ecuador Table of Contents

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.

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 line.

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 employment.

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.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress