Conservative Party leaders are considering the benefits of an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage. This policy has been advocated by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats as a means of helping the lowest paid workers. From 2008 to 2013, minimum wage rates fell 5.2% in real terms: in other words, nominal increases were less than the increase in both the RPI and CPI (see UK minimum wage: a history in numbers).
Advocates of a real rise in the minimum wage argue that not only would it help low-paid workers, many of whom are in severe financial difficulties, but it would benefit the Treasury. According to Policy Exchange, a free-market think tank closely aligned to the Conservative Party, increasing the minimum wage by 50p would save the Government an estimated £750m a year through higher tax revenues and lower benefit payments.
But even such a rise to £6.81 would still leave the minimum wage substantially below the living wage of £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK, as estimated by the Living Wage Foundation (see The cost of a living wage). Although many businesses are now paying at least the living wage, many others, especially small businesses, argue that a rise in the minimum wage above the rate of inflation would force them to consider cutting the number of employees or reducing hours for part-time workers.
Meanwhile, in the USA 13 states have raised their minimum wage rates from the 1st January 2014 (see). Some of the rises, however, were tiny: as little as 15 cents. In a couple of cases, the rise is $1. Currently 21 states and DC have minimum wage rates above the Federal level of $7.25 (approx. £4.40); 20 states have rates the same as the Federal level; 4 states have rates below the Federal level. At $9.32 per hour, Washington State has the highest state minimum wage; the lowest rates ($5.15) are in Georgia and Wyoming. In 5 states there is no minimum wage at all. As the ABC article below states:
The piecemeal increases at the local level are occurring amidst a national debate over low wages and income inequality. Fast food and retail workers have been staging protests and walking off work for more than a year, calling for better pay and more hours. Currently, fast food workers nationally earn an average of about $9 per hour.
Workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and other fast food joints are calling for $15 per hour. Wal-Mart workers organizing as part of the union-backed OUR Walmart aren’t asking for a specific dollar amount increase, but they say it’s impossible to live on the wages they currently receive.
President Obama has been throwing his weight behind the issue. Earlier this month, the President said in a speech that it’s “well past the time to raise the minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.” But such legislation has a bleaker outlook if it reaches the Republican-led House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner has said that raising the minimum wage leads to a pullback in hiring.
So what are the costs and benefits of a significant real rise is the minimum wage on either side of the Atlantic? The articles explore the issues.
Lib Dems accuse Tories of ‘stealing’ their policy as George Osborne prepares to approve above-inflation rise in minimum wage Independent, Andrew Grice (7/1/14)
Lib Dems accuse Tories of ‘nicking’ party’s policy on low wages The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/1/14)
Cut housing benefit? A higher minimum wage would help The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (6/1/14)
Miliband prepares to wage war The Scotsman, Andrew Whitaker (8/1/14)
Increasing the minimum wage is only a half answer to poverty New Statesman, Helen Barnard (8/1/14)
Raise the bar: Economically and socially, Britain needs higher wages Independent (7/1/14)
Another Tory says there’s a ‘strong case’ for raising the minimum wage The Spectator, Isabel Hardman (8/1/14)
Fairness and the minimum wage Financial Times (7/1/14)
Osborne wants above-inflation minimum wage rise BBC News (16/1/14)
George Osborne backs minimum wage rise to £7 an hour The Guardian, Nicholas Watt, (16/1/14)
Minimum wage: in his efforts to defeat Labour, Osborne risks mimicking them The Telegraph, Benedict Brogan (16/1/14)
Minimum wage announcement is not just good economics The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/1/14)
13 states raising pay for minimum-wage workers USA Today, Paul Davidson (30/12/13)
Minimum wage increase: Wage to rise in 13 states on Jan. 1 ABC15 (30/12/13)
NJ minimum wage sees $1 bump on Jan. 1 Bloomberg Businessweek, Angela Delli Santi (31/12/13)
Minimum wage hike a job killer ctpost, Rick Torres (7/1/14)
A Business Owners Case For Raising The Minimum Wage Grundy Country Herald, David Bolotsky (7/1/14)
Raising the Minimum Wage Isn’t Just Good Politics. It’s Good Economics, Too. New Republic, Noam Scheiber (31/12/13)
Minimum wage rises across 13 US states Financial Times, James Politi (1/1/14)
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK
UK minimum wage: a history in numbers Guardian Datablog
List of minimum wages by country Wikipedia
- Draw two diagrams to demonstrate the direct microeconomic effect of a rise in the minimum wage for two employers, both currently paying the minimum wage, where the first is operating in an otherwise competitive labour market and the other is a monopsonist.
- What is meant by the term ‘efficiency wage rate’? How is the concept relevant to the debate about the effects of raising the minimum wage rate?
- What are the likely macroeconomic effects of raising the minimum wage rate?
- What is the likely impact of raising the minimum wage rate on public finances?
- Is raising the minimum wage rate the best means of tackling poverty? Explain your answer.
First the good news. Employment is rising and unemployment is falling. Both claimant count rates and Labour Force Survey rates are down. Compared with a year ago, employment is up 279,092 to 29,869,489; LFS unemployment is down from 7.87% to 7.69%; and the claimant count rate is down from 4.7% to 4.0%.
Now the bad news. Even though more people are in employment, real wages have fallen. In other words, nominal wages have risen less fast than prices. Since 2009, real wages have fallen by 7.6% and have continued to fall throughout this period. The first chart illustrates this. It shows average weekly wage rates in 2005 prices. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The fall in real wages is an average for the whole country. Many people, especially those on low incomes, have seen their real wages fall much faster than the average. For many there is a real ‘cost of living’ crisis.
But why have real wages fallen despite the rise in employment? The answer is that output per hour worked has declined. This is illustrated in the second chart, which compares UK output per worker with that of other G7 countries. UK productivity has fallen both absolutely and relative to other G7 countries, most of which have had higher rates of investment.
The falling productivity in the UK requires more people to be employed to produce the same level of output. Part of what seems to be happening is that many employers have been prepared to keep workers on in return for lower real wages, even if demand from their customers is falling. And many workers have been prepared to accept real wage cuts in return for keeping their jobs.
Another part of the explanation is that the jobs that have been created have been largely in low-skilled, low-wage sectors of the economy, such as retailing and other parts of the service sector.
But falling productivity is only part of the reason for falling real wages. The other part is rising prices. A number of factors have contributed to this. These include a depreciation of the exchange rate back in 2008, the effects of which took some time to filter through into higher prices in the shops; a large rise in various commodity prices; and a rise in VAT and various other administered prices.
So what is the answer to falling real wages? The articles below consider the problem and some of the possible policy alternatives.
Inflation, unemployment and UK ‘misery’ BBC News, Linda Yueh (16/10/13)
Employment is growing, but so are the wage slaves The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/10/13)
Living standards – going down and, er, up BBC News, Nick Robinson (26/7/13)
Revealed: The cost of living is rising faster in the UK than anywhere in Europe, with soaring food and energy bills blamed Mail Online, Matt Chorley (16/10/13)
Cutting prices to raise living standards is just a waste of energy The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (6/10/13)
Downturn sees average real wages collapse to a record low Independent, Ben Chu (17/10/13)
Why living standards and public finances matter Financial Times, Gavin Kelly (29/9/13)
Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn Calls on Government to Boost Wages to End UK Child Poverty International Business Times, Ian Silvera (17/10/13)
Do incorrect employment growth figures explain low UK productivity? The Guardian, Katie Allen (23/10/13)
Unemployment data ONS
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS
Consumer Prices Index ONS
International Comparison of Productivity ONS
- How are real wages measured?
- Why have real wage rates fallen in the UK since 2009?
- What factors should be included when measuring living standards?
- Why has employment risen and unemployment fallen over the past two years?
- What factors could lead to a rise in real wages in the future?
- What government policies could be adopted to raise real wages?
- Assess these policies in terms of their likely short-term success and long-term sustainability.
UK Unemployment figures for the July to September period have just been published. Perhaps surprisingly, the rate has fallen to 7.8% from 8.0% in the previous 3-month period. What is more, there have been similar 0.2 percentage-point falls in each of the two 3-month periods prior to that (see chart below).
This would normally suggest that the economy has been growing strongly and faster than the growth in potential output. But, despite positive economic growth in quarter 3 (see A positive turn of events?), the economy has been experiencing a prolonged period of low or negative growth.
So what is the explanation for the fall in unemployment? (For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here)
One reason is a greater flexibility in the labour market than in previous recessions. People are more willing to accept below inflation wage increases, or even nominal wage cuts, in return for greater job security. Others are prepared to reduce their hours.
The other reason is a fall in productivity (i.e. output per hour worked). One explanation is that people are not working so hard because, with a lack of demand, there is less pressure on them to be productive; a similar explanation is that firms are ‘hoarding’ labour in the hope that the market will pick up again.
Another explanation is that employment growth has often occurred in the low productivity industries, such as labour-intensive service industries; another is that when people leave their jobs they are replace by less productive workers on lower wages; another is that workers are making do with ageing equipment, whose productivity is falling, because firms cannot afford to invest in new equipment. An range of possible explanations is given on page 33 of the Bank of England’s November 2012 Inflation Report.
But with many predicting that growth will be negative again in 2012 quarter 4, the fall in unemployment may not continue. Britain may join many other countries in Europe and experience rising unemployment as well as falling output.
Government hails fall in jobless total The Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (14/11/12)
UK unemployment figures: analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/11/12)
Jobless claims rise as Olympics effect wanes The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper and Louisa Peacock (14/11/12)
UK unemployment falls to 2.51 million, ONS says BBC News (14/11/12)
Unemployment continuing to fall BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (14/11/12)
Britain’s recession: Harsh but fair? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (17/10/12)
The UK productivity puzzle (cont’d) BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (20/9/12)
UK jobs: The plot thickens BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/8/12)
Unemployment: the key UK data and benefit claimants for every constituency Guardian Data Blog
Labour Market Statistics, November 2012 ONS
Video Summary: Latest on the Labour Market, November 2012 ONS
Labour Productivity, Q2 2012 ONS
International Comparisons of Productivity, First estimates for 2011 ONS
- What possible explanation are there for the latest fall in unemployment?
- What has been happening to employment, both full time and part time?
- What are the different ways of measuring productivity? Why will they be affected differently by a fall in the average number of hours worked?
- Why might it be in firms’ interests to maintain the level of their workforce despite falling sales?
- Assume that there has been a fall in aggregate demand. Compare the resulting effect on consumption of (a) a fall in wages rates; (b) a rise in unemployment. How might the design of the benefit system affect the answer?
With the winter fast approaching, consumers have already begun to stock up on warmer clothes. This has contributed towards consumer spending increasing faster in September than it has in the past 3 years. According to Visa Europe’s UK expenditure index, sales in August increased by 1.2pc, but in September they rose month-on-month by 3pc.
But whilst sales on the high-street increased, sales on-line and over the telephone declined. It seems that the recent decrease in temperature is just what the retail sector ordered, as people took to the high streets.
Furthermore, recent improvements in consumer income, together with lower inflation and rising employment have all contributed towards a growth in spending. However, as consumer confidence remains at a relatively low level, it is unlikely that the winter will bring much of a change to growth in the economy. The Chief Economist at Markit said:
However, consumer confidence remains historically low as uncertainty about the economy and job security persists, suggesting that the bounce in spending seen in the third quarter could be as good as it gets for the foreseeable future.
Although the lower temperature has caused a boost in consumption, once people have made their ‘investment’ in warmer clothes, retail spending may once again decline. Hence the above comment by Markit, which suggests that further sustained increases in consumer spending may still be some way off.
The following few articles look at the latest data on retail spending.
UK consumer spending ‘rose in September’ BBC News (5/10/12)
Consumer spending increases by 3pc The Telegraph (5/10/12)
Consumer spending increases by 3% The Press Association (5/10/12)
UK retail sales: what the analysts say Guardian (20/9/12)
Online sales and wet weather boost John Lewis Scotsman, Peter Ranscombe (5/10/12)
- Which factors typically affect consumer spending?
- Using a diagram, illustrate the impact of this increase in consumption on national output and the price level.
- Is it possible that a multiplier effect may occur with the August and September rise in retail sales?
- Why is consumer confidence remaining low? Which components of aggregate demand does it affect?
- Explain why (a) lower inflation, (b) the colder weather and (c) rising employment have caused consumer spending to rise.
Trade union action has been a feature of the British labour market over the past few years, as discussed in this first and second blog. With the government’s austerity measures still in place and ongoing issues over pension provision, there are many explosive issues that will undoubtedly be discussed at this year’s TUC Conference in Brighton.
We have already heard from numerous unions that strike action over the coming year is ‘inevitable’. With rising prices, static or even falling wages, reduced pension provision and increased contributions, the cost of living has become increasingly unaffordable for many members of the trade unions. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison said:
‘I think people have been pushed into a corner. They are moving into poverty … The threat is that if we can’t move forward in negotiations to find a way through it then we will move to industrial action. There is no doubt whatsoever that we can create disputes throughout next year.’
Although few would argue against the notion that the government’s finances are in a dire state and spending cuts together with tax rises are needed, the controversy seems to lie in exactly when these cuts should take place and how severe they should be. For many, cutting government spending and raising taxes whilst the economy is still in recession is asking for trouble. For others, it’s the right thing to do and everyone should play a part in helping to return government finances to a semblance of balance. The Labour government has traditionally supported trade unions, but even their leadership backed the government’s plan for pay restraint for public sector workers. This, together with the continuing debates over public sector pensions has clearly angered many public sector workers, thus creating this ‘inevitable’ industrial action over the coming year.
Unison and GMB have said that they will be working together in order to try to better pay and conditions for its members, by co-ordinating public-sector strikes around Spring next year. Co-ordinated strikes across a variety of sectors could create havoc for the economy. Not just disruption for the everyday person, but losses for businesses and the economy. A general strike has not taken place since 1926, but it is thought that TUC delegates will be voting on whether or not one should be planned. So, when faced with these inevitable strikes, should the government back down and cut back on austerity or stand up to them and suffer the disruption of a strike, whilst continuing on with bringing its budget back on track? The following articles look at the TUC Congress and the proposed strike action.
Public sector unions plan Spring strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (9/9/12)
Trade union warns of further strikes Financial Times, Brian Groom (7/9/12)
Trade union officials gather for TUC Congress in Brighton BBC News, John Moylan (9/9/12)
Unite union leader warns of wave of public sector strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (7/9/12)
Unison and GMB unions planning co-ordinated strikes over pay BBC News, Justin Parkinson (9/9/12)
TUC Conference 2012: a mixture of new and old Channel 4 News (9/9/12)
Government must stand up to these TUC bully tactics Express, Leo McKinstry (9/9/12)
- What is the purpose of a trade union?
- What is the difference between individual and collective bargaining? Why is collective bargaining likely to be more successful in achieving certain aims?
- If there is co-ordinated strike action, what are the likely costs for (a) the workers on strike (b) the non-striking workers (c) businesses and (d) the economy?
- What are the main issues being debated between unions and the government?
- Explain the economic reasoning behind Dave Prentis’ statement that people are being moved into poverty.
- Do you agree with strike action? Do you think it has any effect?
- When do you think is the right time to implement austerity measures? Has the government got it right? As always, make sure you explain your answer!!