It’s been a while since I last blogged about labour markets and, in particular, about the effect of automation on wages and employment. My most recent post on this topic was on the 14th of April 2018 and it was mostly a reflection on some interesting findings that had been reported by Acemoglu et al (2017). More specifically, Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) developed a theoretical framework to evaluate the effect of AI on employment and wages. They concluded that the effect was negative and potentially sizeable (for a more detailed discussion see my blog).
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages … According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 percent.
Since then, I have seen a constant stream of news on my news feed about the development of ever more advanced industrial robots and artificial intelligence. And this was not because of some spooky coincidence (or worse). It has been merely a reflection of the speed at which technology has been progressing in this field.
There are now robots that can run, jump, hold conversations with humans, do gymnastics (and even sweat for it!) and more. It is really impressive how fast change has been happening recently in this field – and, unsurprisingly, it has stimulated the interest of labour economists!
A paper that has recently come to my attention on this subject is by Graetz and Michaels (2018). The authors put together a panel dataset on robot adoption within seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007 and use advanced econometric techniques to evaluate the effect of these technologies on employment and productivity growth. Their analysis focuses exclusively on developed economies (due to data limitations, as they explain) – but their results are nevertheless intriguing:
We study here for the first time the relationship between industrial robots and economic outcomes across much of the developed world. Using a panel of industries in seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007, we find that increased use of industrial robots is associated with increases in labor productivity. We find that the contribution of increased use of robots to productivity growth is substantial and calculate using conservative estimates that it comes to 0.36 percentage points, accounting for 15% of the aggregate economy-wide productivity growth.
The pattern that we document is robust to including various controls for country trends and changes in the composition of labor and other capital inputs. We also find that robot densification is associated with increases in both total factor productivity and wages, and reductions in output prices. We find no significant relationship between the increased use of industrial robots and overall employment, although we find that robots may be reducing the employment of low-skilled workers.
This is very positive news for most – except, of course, for low-skilled workers. Indeed, like Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) and many others, this study shows that the effect of automation on employment and labour market outcomes is unlikely to be uniform across all types of workers. Low-skilled workers are found again to be likely to lose out and be significantly displaced by these technologies.
And if you are wondering which sectors are likely to be disrupted most/first by automation, the rankings developed by McKinsey and Company (see chart below) would give you an idea of where the disruption is likely to start. Unsurprisingly, the sectors that seem to be the most vulnerable, are the ones that use the highest share of low-skilled labour.
- “The effect of automation on wages and employment is likely to be positive overall”. Discuss.
- Using examples and anecdotal evidence, do you agree with these findings?
- Using Google Scholar, put together a list of 5 recent (i.e. 2015 or later) articles and working papers on labour markets and automation. Compare and discuss their findings.
The earnings gap between men and women is well-documented and depending on how we measure it, we get different figures. One of the most common measures is mean earnings per hour. The latest estimates suggest that women are paid around 20% less than men, though other data does give lower figures. Though actions have been taken to reduce the inequality between men and women, it still persists in many areas and this has led to plans for new league tables from Nicky Morgan.
The inequality gap has certainly come down. Back in 1970, the wage differential was around 37 per cent, so progress has been made, although the wage gap in the UK has stabilised somewhat. The gender wage gap is at least in part explained by occupations, as women have tended to be prevalent in some of the more poorly paid occupations. However, significant earnings differentials still exist within occupations. We see fewer women in the more senior positions; women tend to take career breaks and hence this can cause more investment into training and promoting men. Furthermore, we often simply see some form of prejudice or discrimination whereby women are just paid less than men, despite the Equal Pay Act.
As a means of combatting this inequality, Nicky Morgan, the Women and Equalities Minister, has announced plans that will require private companies and voluntary organisations employing more than 250 workers to reveal their pay gap. They will have to produce this information online and this will a means to bring down the inequality that exists between men and women in the same occupations. The first League Table of this pay gap will be published in April 2018 so companies will have to begin compiling the information from April 2017. This has received criticism from some, as it is not starting soon enough, but it is seen as a step in the right direction.
Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General warned that these League Tables shouldn’t be used to name and shame firms, as many factors might explain wage differentials. She noted:
“Where reporting can be useful is as a prompt for companies to ask the right questions about how they can eradicate the gender pay gap … The government should consult closely with business to ensure that this new legislation helps close the gender pay gap, rather than ending up as a box-ticking exercise.”
Clearly there are some close links between the gender pay gap and concerns about poverty and minimum wages and although the League Tables perhaps should not be used to name and shame, one might think it is inevitable that this is how they will be viewed. The following articles consider Nicky Morgan’s inequality plans.
Gender Pay Gap European Commission
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2015 Provisional Results Office for National Statistics (November 2015)
Pay gap reporting Equal Pay Portal2016
Gender pay gap reporting for big firms to start in 2018 Guardian, Rowena Mason (12/02/16)
Gender pay gap to be revealed by employers to tackle inequality Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (12/02/16)
Firms forced to reveal gender pay gap BBC News (12/02/16)
Gender pay gap League Tables to ‘name and shame’ companies Telegraph, Steven Swinford (12/02/16)
UK companies must reveal gender pay gap under new plans Independent, Oliver Wright (12/02/16)
Companies told to publish gender pay gap Sky News (12/102/16)
Gender pay gap: Business groups mixed on Nicky Morgan’s new name-and-shame plans International Business Times, Bauke Schram (12/02/16)
Now every firm with more than 250 staff must put gender pay gap data online in move to encourage companies to reward staff equally Mail Online, Jack Doyle and Rosie Taylor (12/02/16)
- Use a labour market diagram to explain how gender pay gaps can emerge based on different marginal products.
- How can gender pay gaps emerge because of women taking career breaks and being less geographically mobile?
- Use information on the ONS website to compare pay differentials across occupations. Are the biggest and smallest differentials where you would expect?
- There are numerous reasons why men have traditionally been paid more than women. Which reasons could be said to be irrational and which are rational?
- If employers were forced to give genuinely equal pay for equal work, how would this affect the employment of women and men? What would determine the magnitude of these effects?
- Do you think this naming and shaming will be effective in reducing the gender pay gap amongst the largest companies? Can you suggest any other policy options?
- If the Equal Pay Act is in place, why can companies still pay women less?
In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.
Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.
According to the ONS:
‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)
As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.
As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.
The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.
The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.
However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.
lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)
Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)
- Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
- Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
- In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
- Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
- What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
- Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
- Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
- Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
One of the key battle grounds at the next General Election is undoubtedly going to be immigration. A topic that is very closely related to EU membership and what can be done to limit the number of people coming to the UK. One side of the argument is that immigrants coming into the UK boost growth and add to the strength of the economy. The other side is that once in the UK, immigrants don’t move into work and end up taking more from the welfare state than they give to it through taxation.
A new report produced by University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration has found that the effect on the UK economy of immigrants from the 10 countries that joined the EU from 2004 has been positive. In the years until 2011, it has been found that these immigrants contributed £4.96 billion more in taxes than they took out in benefits and use of public services. Christian Dustmann, one of the authors of this report said:
“Our new analysis draws a positive picture of the overall fiscal contribution made by recent immigrant cohorts, particularly of immigrants arriving from the EU … European immigrants, particularly, both from the new accession countries and the rest of the European Union, make the most substantial contributions … This is mainly down to their higher average labour market participation compared with natives and their lower receipt of welfare benefits.”
The report also found that in the 11 years to 2011, migrants from these 10 EU countries were 43 per cent less likely than native Britons to receive benefits or tax credits, and 7 per cent less likely to live in social housing. This type of data suggests a positive overall contribution from EU immigration. However, critics have said that it doesn’t paint an accurate picture. Sir Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch commented on the choice of dates, saying:
“If you take all EU migration including those who arrived before 2001 what you find is this: you find by the end of the period they are making a negative contribution and increasingly so … And the reason is that if you take a group of people while they’re young fit and healthy they’re not going to be very expensive but if you take them over a longer period they will be.”
However, the report is not all positive about the effects of immigration. When considering the impact on the economy of migrants from outside of the EEA, the picture is quite different. Over the past 17 years, immigration has cost the UK economy approximately £120bn, through migrant’s greater consumption of public benefits, such as the NHS, compared to their contributions through taxation. The debate is likely to continue and this report will certainly be used by both sides of the argument as evidence that (a) no change in immigration policy is needed and (b) a major change is needed to immigration policy. The following articles consider this report.
The Fiscal effects of immigration to the UK The Economic Journal, University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini (November 2014)
Immigration from outside Europe ‘cost £120 billion’ The Telegraph, David Barrett (5/11/14)
New EU members add £5bn to UK says Research BBC News (5/11/14)
UK gains £20bn from European migrants, UCL economists reveal The Guardian, Alan Travis (5/11/14)
EU immigrant tax gain revealed Mail Online (5/11/14)
Immigration question still open BBC News, Robert Peston (5/11/14)
EU migrants pay £20bn more in taxes than they receive Financial Times, Helen Warrell (5/11/14)
- Why is immigration such a political topic?
- How are UK labour markets be affected by immigration? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the effect.
- Based on your answer to question 2, explain why some people are concerned about the impact of immigration on UK jobs.
- What is the economic argument in favour of allowing immigration to continue?
- What policy changes could be recommended to restrict the levels of immigration from outside the EEA, but to continue to allow immigration from EU countries?
- If EU migrants are well educated, does that have a positive or negative impact on UK workers, finances and the economy?
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?