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What do we mean when we talk about an emerging middle class?

What do we mean when we talk about an emerging middle class?

Dear Editor,

Noeleen Heyzer’s article about the Millennium Development Goals (“People key to MDG success”, September 23)was thought-provoking, but to assert that every country needs a new middle class surely needs some qualification.

In all states of the developed world, and in many of the developing world too, there are a considerable number families with prosperity rooted in entrepreneurship, the professions or the management of public and private organisations.

The fruits of their affluence are generally invested in property, improved healthcare, educational provision, leisure pursuits and pension funds.
However, I am not sure if these are the people Ms Heyzer refers to when she writes about the “new middle class” in Asia.

Last year, The Economist, the influential London-based magazine, promulgated the idea that the term middle class could be applied to a growing number of people taking the first steps out of poverty and able to spend about a third of their income in a discretionary way.

This definition may be the one that Ms Heyzer was using when writing about the new middle class. We might look at this idea in the context of the present dispute in the garment industry.

I would say, by any standard applied in the West, that most workers in the garment industry are poor.

Let us imagine the demand for US$93 a month, an increase of about a third in the agreed basic wage, is granted. Given the present minimum rate is set at virtually subsistence level, would this increase really project many thousands of workers into a middle class? I don’t think so.

The garment workers would still be relatively poor and accumulating the wealth, qualifications and property of most Western middle-class people, or even those of a similar status in Cambodia, would not be something they could reasonably achieve in a whole lifetime of work. Most are unlikely to become globally connected either, or internet savvy.

It would, perhaps, be better if organisations involved in trying to achieve the MDGs were more precise in their definition of what middle class actually means when they use it and make this clear in their published documents.

To use the term middle class as defined by The Economist may lead those unaware of the nuances of the terminology to assume greater positive changes are under way than is actually the case.

The growth of regional “traditional” middle classes will not necessarily expedite achievement of the MDGs.

History seems to show that an emerging middle class does not always have great sympathy with those lower down the social hierarchy.

In early 19th century Britain, for example, a new middle class, using wealth created by the British industrial revolution, began to flex its political muscle as it steadily increased its purchasing power and accumulated property.

Throughout the 1820s, agitation grew for a fairer electoral system that resulted in the Reform Act of 1832. Immediately afterwards, however, middle-class pressure for further change virtually evaporated. Working-class movements, like the Chartists of the Hungry Forties were not successful in extending the franchise, which only came slowly, later in the century.

The great danger of the way things are developing in Asia is that the middle classes cast in a traditional mould will see themselves increasingly set apart from those not so fortunate. They will be quite happy to benefit from, but largely indifferent to, a large and growing pool of inexpensive labour, and when pressure for fair treatment grows they will tend to support strong government against organisations, such as trade unions, perceived as a threat to the status quo.

In this sense the term middle class may become rather misleading in another way, as it assumes a three-class system when there are, in effect, only two: the haves and have-nots. Isn’t this part of the problem in Thailand?

It is fair to say that a growth in consumer demand from the traditional middle class might increase job opportunities, but it is also true that an increasing desire for expensive imports may lead to a flight of capital and the worsening of a trade balance.

Large new property developments may add a modern patina to the suburbs of an established city, but if constructed on land taken from rightful owners by nefarious means and built by cheap labour with little regard to the personal safety of workers who lack any kind of job security, is it likely this situation will contribute to real social progress, which after all is what the MDGs are all about?

What every country actually needs is a traditional middle class in which both the entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of public service is fostered and properly paid for. However, it is important that consciousness of privilege is cultivated too, and this should manifest itself in a willingness to support opportunities for the sons and daughters of those lower down the economic ladder.

Education is the key to progress in this respect, with well-funded scholarships for the brightest children from poor families.

When these young people, boys and girls, seek to enter the job market, they may need to be supported in order to feel their background is no barrier to interview success.

One way to help in this, in the Cambodian context, is for nongovernment organisations working in the development field to review the wording of their job advertisements in the English language press, ensuring that members of the lowest socio-economic groups are always encouraged to apply.

A poor boy from a village in Stung Treng or a girl who knew the dismal conditions at Stung Meanchey may well have struggled long and hard to get to the position from which they could make an application, but be nervous about doing so.

In my view, purely because of their class background, they are worthy of specific encouragement. The stairway leading upwards to the traditional middle class needs to be well-constructed, well-maintained and always in place.

Michael Hansen
Phnom Penh

Send letters to: [email protected] or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the authors’ and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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