Globalist Quiz

The World’s Working Poor

How many of the world’s 3.1 billion workers earn less than $1.25 a day in wages?

Credit: project1photography,


About 3.1 billion people around the world go to work each day. But many of them are still extremely poor. They earn just about enough money each day to pay for two bowls of rice soup at 25 cents per bowl, 50 cents for housing and 25 cents more for transport to and from work.

We wonder: How many of the world’s workers live at this wage?

A. Half the world's workers (1.5 billion people)

As population growth and rural poverty send vast numbers of low-income families into urban slums throughout the developing world, one could easily imagine that the ranks of extremely poor people are rising. Thankfully, they are not.

Only in one region — sub-Saharan Africa — does very-low-income work still account for more than 40% of total employment.

Workers across the globe who, according criteria established by the World Bank and the International Labor Organization (ILO), are stuck in "deep poverty," earning less than $1.25 a day. (This amount is measured in constant 2005 dollars, so as to avoid the illusory benefits of inflation.)

Many of these jobs are truly bad jobs — where "bad" means that the job earns the worker close to nothing and leaves him or her in deep poverty.

B. Quarter of the world's workers (750 million people)

Fortunately, the incidence of very-low-wage employment is falling in every part of the world. According to data compiled by the ILO, the last time a quarter of the world’s workforce earned less than $1.25 a day was in 2000.

At that time, 696 million men, women and children of the world’s then-2.6-billion-person strong workforce &mdash or about one in every four workers — earned less than $1.25 a day. In contrast, a decade earlier, in 1990, around 40% of all workers were considered extremely poor.

Of the 3.1 billion workers today, about a billion work in agriculture, 0.7 billion in industry, and 1.4 billion in services.

C. Slightly over 10% of the world's workers (400 million people)

In 2012, 384 million people, or just over 12% of the world’s 3.1 billion workers, were counted as desperately poor by the ILO. Most of them live in South Asia (156 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (128 million).

What is remarkable is that 312 million fewer workers now live in absolute poverty than was the case in in 2000. Thus, each day over the last decade, about 71,000 workers have managed to leave deep poverty behind.

The fastest drops were seen in East Asia, where only 5.6% of workers earn less than $1.25 a day, Southeast Asia (11.7%), Latin America (3.6%) and Eastern Europe (1.7%).

As development and growth steadily reduce poverty in each major region of the world, there are encouraging signs that the number of very-low-wage earners will continue to fall.

By 2017, only 285 million of the world’s 3.3 billion workers are expected to be earning less than $1.25 a day. That is equal to 8.6% — or about one in every 12 workers.

D. About 3% of the world's workers (100 million people)

Though the proportion of very-low-income jobs has fallen sharply worldwide, it remains above 40% in sub-Saharan Africa and 20% in South Asia.

A figure of 100 million would represent about 3% of all jobs in these regions. Only the developed world and Eastern Europe have reached this level, though Latin America and East Asia are getting close.

Editor’s note: This Globalist Quiz draws on research and analysis by the Progressive Economy project of the GlobalWorks Foundation.

To listen to The Globalist’s Stephan Richter discuss this quiz with Marketplace Morning Report host Jeremey Hobson, click here to open a pop-up media player.



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