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.
Each year in November, the Living Wage Foundation publishes figures for the hourly living wage that is necessary for people to meet basic bills. The rate for London is calculated by the Greater London Authority and for the rest of the UK by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University.
The 2013 update was published on 4 November. The Living Wage was estimated to be £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK.
Two things need to be noted about the Living Wage rate. The first is that the figure is an average and thus does not take into account the circumstances of an individual household. Clearly households differ in terms of their size, the number of wage earners and dependants, the local costs of living, etc. Second, the figures have been reduced from what is regarded as the ‘reference’ living wage, which is estimated to be £9.08 outside London. The reason for this is that people earning higher incomes have seen their living standards squeezed since 2009, with prices rising faster than average post-tax-and-benefit wages. Thus, the Living Wage is capped to reflect the overall decline in living standards. As the Working Paper on rates outside London explains:
From 2012 onwards, two kinds of limit have been put on the amount that the Living Wage as applied can rise in any one year. The first limits the increase in the net income (after taxes and benefits) requirement for each household on which the living wage calculation is based, relative to the rise in net income that would be achieved by someone on average earnings. The second limits the increase in the living wage itself (representing gross income) relative to the increase in average earnings.
Nevertheless, despite this capping of the living wage, it is still significantly higher than the UK National Minimum Wage, which currently stands at £6.31 for those aged 21 and over. This can be seen from the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
Paying the Living Wage is voluntary for employers, but as The Guardian reports:
A total of 432 employers are now signed up to the campaign, up from 78 this time last year, including Legal & General, KPMG, Barclays, Oxfam, Pearson, the National Portrait Gallery and First Transpennine Express, as well as many smaller businesses, charities and town halls. Together they employ more than 250,000 workers and also commit to roll out the living wage in their supply chain.
But as The Observer reports:
The number of people who are paid less than a ‘living wage’ has leapt by more than 400,000 in a year to over 5.2 million, amid mounting evidence that the economic recovery is failing to help millions of working families.
A report for the international tax and auditing firm KPMG also shows that nearly three-quarters of 18-to-21-year-olds now earn below this level – a voluntary rate of pay regarded as the minimum to meet the cost of living in the UK. The KPMG findings highlight difficulties for ministers as they try to beat back Labour’s claims of a “cost of living crisis”.
According to the report, women are disproportionately stuck on pay below the living wage rate, currently £8.55 in London and £7.45 elsewhere. Some 27% of women are not paid the living wage, compared with 16% of men. Part-time workers are also far more likely to receive low pay than full-time workers, with 43% paid below living-wage rates compared with 12% of full-timers.
But although paying a living wage may be desirable in terms of equity, many firms, especially in the leisure and retailing sectors, claim that they simply cannot afford to pay the living wage and, if they were forced to, would have to lay off workers.
The point they are making is that it is not economical to pay workers more than their marginal revenue product. But this raises the question of whether a higher wage would encourage people to work more efficiently. If it did, an efficiency wage may be above current rates for many firms. It also raises the question of whether productivity gains could be negotiated in exchange for paying workers a living wage
These arguments are discussed in the following podcast.
Higher ‘productivity’ will increase living wage BBC Today Programme, Priya Kothari and Steve Davies (4/11/13)
UK living wage rises to £7.65 an hour The Guardian (4/11/13)
More than 5 million people in the UK are paid less than the living wage The Observer, Toby Helm (2/11/13)
Increasing numbers of Scots are paid less than living wage Herald Scotland (2/11/13)
Labour would give tax rebates to firms that pay living wage Independent, Jane Merrick (3/11/13)
Employers praise Ed Miliband’s living wage proposal Independent, Andy McSmith (3/11/13)
Miliband’s living wage tax break will raise prices, warns CBI chief The Telegraph, Tim Ross (3/11/13)
Living Wage rise provides a boost for low paid workers BBC News (4/11/13)
Information and Reports
What is the Living Wage? Living Wage Foundation
The Living Wage Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University
Living wage Mayor of London
One in five UK workers paid less than the Living Wage KPMG News Release (3/11/13)
Number of workers paid less than the Living Wage passes 5 million KPMG News Release (3/11/13)
Living Wage Research for KPMG Markit (October 2012)
- How is the Living Wage calculated?
- What are the reasons for announcing a Living Wage figure that is lower than a reference living wage? Assess these reasons.
- If there are two separate figures for the Living Wage for London and the rest of the UK, would it be better to work out a living wage for each part, or even location, of the UK?
- Why might it be in employers’ interests to pay at least the Living Wage? Does this explain why more and more employers are volunteering to pay it?
- Assess the Labour Party’s pledge, if they win the next election, that ‘firms which sign up to the living wage will receive a tax rebate of up to £1000 for every low-paid worker who gets a pay rise, funded by tax and national insurance revenue from the higher wages’.
- Which is fairer: to pay everyone at least the Living Wage or to use tax credits to redistribute incomes to low-income households?
Pressure has been growing in the UK for people to be paid no less than a living wage. The Living Wage Foundation claims that this should be £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 in the rest of the UK. The current minimum wage is £6.19.
There has been considerable support for a living wage across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has stated that a Labour government would ensure that government employees were paid at least the living wage and that government contracts would go only to firms paying living wages. Other firms that paid less could be ‘named and shamed’. The living wage has also been supported by Boris Johnson, Conservative Mayor of London. The Prime Minister said that a living wage is ‘an idea whose time has come’, although many Conservatives oppose the idea.
The hourly living wage rate is calculated annually by the Centre for Research in Social Policy and is based on the basic cost of living. The London rate is calculated by the Greater London Authority.
Advocates of people being paid at least the living wage argue that not only would this help to reduce poverty, it would also help to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity by improving motivation and the quality of people’s work.
It would also bring in additional revenue to the government. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Resolution Foundation, if everyone were paid at least a living wage, this would increase the earnings of the low paid by some £6.5bn per year. Of this, some £3.6bn would go to the government in the form of higher income tax and national insurance payments and reduced spending on benefits and tax credits. Of this £6.5bn, an extra £1.3 billion would be paid to public-sector workers, leaving the Treasury with a net gain of £2.3bn.
But what would be the effect on employment? Would some firms be forced to reduce their workforce and by how much? Or would the boost to aggregate demand from extra consumer spending more than offset this and lead to a rise in employment?. The following articles look at the possible effects.
Living wage for all workers would boost taxes and GDP Independent, Nigel Morris (28/12/12)
Living wage could save £2bn – think tank research BBC News (28/12/12)
‘Living wage’ would save money, says study Financial Times, Helen Warrell (28/12/12)
Why the Resolution Foundation and IPPR can go boil their heads Adam Smith Institute, Tim Worstall (30/12/12)
Living wage for public servants moves a step closer The Observer,
Yvonne Roberts and Toby Helm (15/12/12/)
Living wage: Ed Miliband pledge over government contracts BBC News (5/11/12)
‘London Living Wage’ increased to £8.55 by mayor BBC News (5/11/12)
Q&A: The living wage BBC News (5/11/12)
Scrooges in UK firms must pay a Living Wage This is Money, John Sentamu (23/12/12)
What price a living wage? IPPR and The Resolution Foundation, Matthew Pennycook (May 2012)
- How would you set about determining what the living wage rate should be?
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Would people being paid below a living wage be best described as absolute or relative poverty (or both or neither)?
- What do you understand by the term ‘efficiency wage’? How is this concept relevant to the debate about the effects of firms paying a living wage?
- Under what circumstances would raising the statutory minimum wage rate to the living wage rate result in increased unemployment? How is the wage elasticity of demand for labour relevant to your answer and how would this elasticity be affected by all firms having to pay at least the living wage rate?
- What would be the macroeconomic effects of all workers being paid at least the living wage rate? What would determine the magnitude of these effects?