We have had a minimum wage in the UK for well over a decade and one its key purposes was to boost the pay of the lowest paid workers and in doing so reduce the inequality gap. Rising inequality has been a concern for many countries across the world and not even the nations with the most comprehensive welfare states have been immune.
Switzerland, known for its banking sector, has been very democratic in its approach to pay, holding three referenda in recent years to give the Swiss public the chance to decide on pay. Imposing restrictions on the bonuses available to the bosses of the largest companies was backed in the first referendum, but in this latest vote, the world’s highest minimum wage has been rejected. The proposed wage is the equivalent of £15 per hour and it is the hourly wage which proponents argue is the wage needed to ensure workers can afford to ‘live a decent life’. However, prices in Switzerland are considerably higher than those in the UK and this wage translates to around £8.33 per hour in purchasing power parity terms, according to the OECD. In the UK, much debate has surrounded the question of a living wage and the impact that a significant increase in the NMW would have on firms. The concern in Switzerland has been of a similar nature.
With a higher wage, costs of production will inevitably rise and this is likely to lead to firms taking on fewer workers and perhaps moving towards a different mix of factors of production. With less workers being employed, unemployment would be likely to increase and it may be that the higher costs of production are passed onto consumers in the form of a higher price. One problem is that as prices rise, the real wage falls. Therefore, while advocates of this high minimum wage suggest that it would help to reduce the gap between rich and poor, the critics suggest that it may lead to higher unemployment and would actually harm the lowest paid workers. It appears that the Swiss population agreed with the critics, when 76% voted against the proposal. Cristina Gaggini, who is the Director of the Geneva Office of the Swiss Business Association said:
I think [it would have been] an own goal, for workers as well as for small companies in Switzerland … Studies show that a minimum wage can lead to much more unemployment and poverty than it helps people … And for very small companies it would be very problematic to afford such a high salary.
The proposal was made by Swiss Unions, given the high cost of living in Switzerland’s suggest cities. It was rejected by the Swiss Business Federation and government and this was then echoed by the overwhelming majority in the referendum. Switzerland has been found to be the most expensive place to live in the world and the wages paid are insufficient to provide a decent life, with many claiming benefits to support their earnings. The debate over the minimum wage and the living wage will continue in countries across the world, but for now the Swiss people have had their say. The following articles consider this issue.
Switzerland rejects world’s highest minimum wage BBC News (18/5/14)
Swiss voters reject plan to establish world’s highest minimum wage The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (18/5/14)
Swiss voters reject setting world’s highest minimum wage Wall Street Journal, Neil Maclucas (18/5/14)
Swiss voters reject world’s highest minimum wage, block fighter jets Reuters, Caroline Copley (18/5/14)
Switzerland votes on world’s highest minimum wage at £15 per hour Independent, Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith (18/5/14)
Swiss reject highest minimum wage in world Financial Times, James Shotter (18/5/14)
Swiss reject world’s highest minimum wage, jet purchase Bloomberg, Catherine Bosley (18/5/14)
- Using a demand and supply diagram, illustrate the impact of a national minimum wage being imposed.
- Using the diagram above, explain the impact on unemployment and evaluate the factors that determine the amount of unemployment created.
- Given what you know about the proposed Swiss minimum wage, how much of an impact on unemployment do you think there would be?
- Draw a diagram to show the effect on a firm’s costs of production of the national minimum wage. Explain how such costs may affect the prices consumers pay for goods and services.
- How is it possible that a higher minimum wage could actually lead to more inequality within a country?
- Is there a chance that a minimum wage could lead to inflation? What type would it be?
Getting around London is pretty easy to do. Transport, though often criticized, is very effective in and around London – at least when the Underground is running uninterrupted. However, since 9pm on Tuesday 4th February until the morning of 7th February, the underground will be operating well below full capacity, as strike action affects many workers.
Transport for London has plans to cut many jobs, in particular through the closure of ticket office at all stations. Modernisation to the network is said to be essential, not just to improve the existing system, but also as it is predicted to save £50 million per year. Data suggests that only 3% of transactions involve people using ticket offices and thus the argument is that having offices manned is a waste of money and these workers would be better allocated to manning stations. David Cameron said:
I unreservedly condemn this strike. There is absolutely no justification for a strike. We need a modernised tube line working for the millions of Londoners who use it every day.
Workers on London Underground are naturally concerned about the impact this will have, in particular on their jobs, despite assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
The impact of these strikes on workers in London is clearly evident by any pictures you look at. Buses were over-crowded, despite more than 100 extra being provided, pavements were packed with pedestrians and the roads were full of cyclists. At least the strike action has led to a little more exercise for many people! The disruption to business in London is likely to be relatively large and the loss in revenue due to the action will also be high, estimated by Business leaders to be tens of millions of pounds. It is perhaps for this reason that there is discussion as to whether the underground should be declared an ‘essential service’ as a means of minimising future disruptions.
Discussions have been ongoing between both sides to try to prevent this action and talks are likely to continue in the future. Boris Johnson has declared the strikes as ‘completely pointless’ and both sides have argued that the other has been unwilling to negotiate and discuss the ticket office closures. Boris Johnson said:
A deal is there to be done. I am more than happy to talk to Bob Crow if he calls off the pointless and unnecessary strike.
The impact on London and the economy will only be fully known after the strike action is over, but there are plans for further strikes next week. The greater the disruption the bigger the calls for further strikes on key services, such as the tube, to be prevented. In particular, this may mean new powers to curtail the rights of unions in these types of areas, which will require a minimum service to be provided. The following articles consider the strike action on the London Underground.
- If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
- If only 3% of transactions take place via ticket offices, is it an efficient use of resources to maintain the presence of ticket offices at every station?
- Is industrial action ‘completely pointless’?
- What other solutions are there besides strike action to problems of industrial dispute?
- What is the role of ACAS in negotiations?
- What is the economic impact of the strike on the London Underground? Think about the impact on businesses, revenues, sales and both micro and macro consequences.
- Should the tube be seen as an essential service such that strike action by its workers would be restricted?
One problem for motorists at the moment is the cost of petrol, where prices have reached over 1.37p on average, as we considered in the blog It’s fuelling anger. However, another problem could soon materialise and that is no petrol. Back in 2000, there was massive disruption to the public with a fuel blockade and a similar thing could occur, following the ‘yes’ vote by fuel tank drivers in favour of strike action.
Over the past few years, strikes have occurred across a variety of industries and if this one did happen with no contingency plan in place, disruption would be significant to both private individuals and companies. Drivers from Unite (the trade union) supply over 90% of fuel to UK garages and so any strike could lead to the closure of up to 7,900 stations.
However, the government has begun to consider the worst case scenario, if talks do not work with plans to begin training army drivers. There are concerns that without these plans in place, disruption across the country may occur with supermarkets, garages and airports all facing fuel shortages. Those who have a job that relies on travel, or even those who simply use their cars or buses to get to work will also feel the effects. Other problems within the emergency services could also emerge, but the government has assured the public that their fuel would be prioritised. The following articles consider this issue.
Fuel strike drivers vote yes in row over conditions BBC News (26/3/12)
Plan for fuel strike, says Downing Street Financial Times, George Parker (27/3/12)
Talks urged to avert fuel tanker strike Independent, Andrew Woodcock and David Mercer (27/3/12)
Ed Miliband: Fuel strike must be avoided at all costs Telegraph, James Hall (27/3/12)
All striking tanker drivers want is responsible minimum standards Guardian, Len McCluskey (27/3/12)
- If a trade union bargains for higher wages, what is the likely effect on employment and unemployment?
- How might strike action by tankers affect businesses?
- Are there likely to be any adverse long term effects if strike action does occur over Easter?
- How could strike action affect a firm’s costs of production? Think in particular about those who rely on travel as part of the business.
- What other options are there to trade unions, besides striking? Assess the effectiveness of each of the options.
- If a shortage of petrol emerged, what would you expect to happen to its market price?
No, bonfire night hasn’t been moved, but the 30th November could certainly be a day to remember. This day has been ‘selected’ by Unions for a nationwide day of action in response to government plans to increase workers’ pension contribution. The action would undoubtedly lead to massive disruption to public services across the UK and if an agreement is not reached with Ministers, we are likely to see further days of industrial action. In the words of the TUC boss, Brendan Barber, if no agreement is forthcoming, there will be ‘the biggest trade union mobilisation for a generation’.
The so-called pensions crisis has been an ongoing saga with seemingly no end in sight. As the UK population gets older, the strain on the state pension will continue to grow. The dependency ratio has increased – there are more and more pensioners being supported by fewer and fewer adults of working age. If the level of benefits is to be maintained, workers must either work for longer or make larger contributions to make up the deficit.
Plans are already in motion to increase the retirement age, but this in itself will not be sufficient. If pension contributions do increase, workers will undoubtedly find themselves worse off – a larger proportion of their gross income will be taken and hence net incomes will be lower. With less disposable income, consumer expenditure will fall, and given that consumption is the largest component of aggregate demand, the economy will take a hit. This is even more of a concern given the pay freezes we have already seen, together with rising inflation. People’s purses will get squeezed more and more, So, while raising pension contributions may help plug the pensions deficit, it could spell trouble for the economic prospects of the UK economy.
In addition to the potential longer term effects, there will also be a significant short term effect, namely, the loss of output on the day of the strike action. If workers are absent, the company will produce less than their potential and in some cases, the lost output can never be regained. If the postal workers go on strike, businesses may find packages go undelivered, customers experience delays, bills are not paid and so on. In all, strike action on the scale that is planned will have an impact on everyone, so it is in the interests of the economy for some sort of agreement to be reached. As Mr. Barber said:
‘If there’s no progress, then potentially we will see very widespread industrial action across the public services’
The following articles look at this conflict.
Unions plan ‘day of action’ over pensions Financial Times, Brian Groom (14/9/11)
TUC: ‘Strikes will be the biggest for a generation’ says Brendan Barber Telegraph (14/9/11)
Unions call for ‘national day of action’ over pensions BBC News (14/9/11)
Unions call collective day of strike action in November Guardian, Helene Mulholland and Dan Milmo (14/9/11)
Ed Miliband to warn trade unions that they must modernise Independent, Andrew Grice (13/9/11)
Trade unions plan day of action over pensions on Nov 30 Associated Press (14/9/11)
Are the trade unions about to save Britain? Telegraph, Mary Riddell (12/9/11)
Pension row unions in day of action The Press Association (14/9/11)
Unions set date for pensions strike as ‘unprecedented ballot begins’ Telegraph, Christopher Hope (14/9/11)
TUC to attack ministers over public sector pensions BBC News(14/9.11)
Secret plan for union strikes to cripple the country Telegraph, Christopher Hope(14/9/11)
- What are the main costs of strike action to (a) the individual going on strike (b) the firms which lose their workers (c) small businesses (d) the economy?
- What is meant by the dependency ratio? What action could be taken to reduce it? For each type of action, think about the costs and benefits.
- If pension contributions do increase, explain how workers will be affected. How will this affect each of the components of aggregate demand?
- Based on your answer to the above questions, what is likely to be the impact on the government’s macroeconomic objectives?
- What other action, besides striking, could unions take? Is it likely to be as effective? Do you think strikes are a good thing?
- Illustrate on a diagram the effect of a trade union entering an industry. How does it normally affect equilibrium wages and employment?
The pensions problems facing many of the developed world are well documented and are largely caused by changing demographics, including rising life expectancy, more people in education, retiring earlier and the ‘baby boomers’ nearing or entering retirement. All of this has contributed to unsustainable pension systems and hence a need for reform. The latest review is by Lord Hutton and looks at public-sector pensions. It makes a number of recommendations about reform. The main thing to come out of the report is that public-sector workers will have to pay larger contributions. work for longer and may receive less in their pension.
Many public-sector pensions have been based on a final salary scheme, which gives workers an extremely generous pension on retirement. The proposal is to change these to career average pensions, which will reduce the generosity for some and hence play a role in reducing the pension deficit. He suggests that public-sector retirement age should be increased in line with the state pension age, which will simultaneously increase the number of workers and hence output, but also reduce the number of years spent in retirement and hence reduce pension payments.
The government will now consider the recommendations laid out in the Hutton Review, but will need to bear in mind potential reactions by the unions, which have already hinted at strike action if the proposals go ahead. As the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, said:
‘Public-sector workers are already suffering a wage freeze, job losses and high inflation. They are now desperately worried that they will no longer be able to afford their pension contributions, and will have to opt out.’
With such concern about these proposals, and yet an unarguable case for pension reform, this is certainly an area where we will undoubtedly see significant media coverage.
Hutton reveals his pension plan – and is blasted by unions Guardian, Polly Curtis (10/3/11)
Pensions anger from unions following Hutton review (including video) BBC News (10/3/11)
High-wire act fails to balance public and private Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (10/3/11)
A fairer pension deal that is long overdue Telegraph (10/3/11)
Hutton: This changes the basis on which I accepted the job, says teacher Guardian, Jessica Shepherd and Jill Insley (10/3/11)
No winners over public sector pensions if ministers or unions rush to battle Guardian, Polly Toynbee (10/3/11)
Career-average pensions: How do they work? BBC News, Ian Pollock (10/3/11)
Hutton pensions review: Q&A Telegraph, Harry Wallop (10/3/11)
Tackling the intractable The Economist (10/3/11)
Trade unions: pension reforms are unfair and misguided Guardian, James Meikle (10/3/11)
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission: Final Report Pensions Commission, Lord Hutton, HM Treasury, March 2010
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission: Interim Report Pensions Commission, Lord Hutton October 2010
- Identify the main causes of the pensions problem. Explain how each issue has added to the pensions deficit.
- To what extent is it equitable that public sector workers should pay more in contributions and retire at the same age as the state pension age?
- Who will benefit the most from a change from final-salary to career average schemes?
- How might higher contributions affect the incentive to work? What could we see happen to labour supply? Think about both income and substitution effects.
- What are the union’s main arguments against the proposals? To what extent Is striking likely to solve the problem?