Tag Archives: Wages

US needs to create good middle-class jobs

Fast food strikeIn early August this year fast-food workers across the US staged a walkout in protest about their levels of pay – they were demanding an increase from $7.25 (Federal Minimum Wage) to $15 an hour. Under the current minimum wage a worker’s income is $15,000 per annum which is below poverty level pay. Although the minimum wage has increased it is still below its peak in 1968 when it was worth approximately $10.70 an hour in today’s dollars. As well as the low pay, workers in the fast food industry get few benefits and also prospects for full-time work are limited. Add to that a weak job market and ultimately bargaining position, the prospects for these workers look bleak. Although this low pay has been prevalent for many years why is it that is has become such a political issue?

Why are older workers in fast-food and retail jobs?

Historically these part-time jobs have been filled by students or parents looking for work to supplement the family income. However with the downturn in the US economy and increasing unemployment, many in the labour force have had no choice but to try and pick-up any available work. This includes major income earners for families and today low-wage workers provide up to 46% of their family’s income. This is in contrast to forty years ago where there was no expectation that fast-food or retail jobs would provide the living wage as they were not the jobs that the main breadwinner in the household was employed in. In the 1980s profitable companies like Ford, General Motors and other manufacturing industries were big employers in the US economy. Workers were well paid and also had the benefit of pension plans and medical cover. However globalisation and the drive for lower costs have seen a number of US firms looking to locate overseas in countries such as Mexico and China.
The above is a brief extract from an article published in this month’s econoMAX – click below to subscribe to econoMAX the online magazine of Tutor2u. Each month there are 8 articles of around 600 words on current economic issues.


Immigration and Wages – a useful diagram

I found this graph in New Zealand Association of Economists publication entitled “Asymmetric Information”. It shows the effects of immigration policy and considers the broader effects of immigration – not just the simple fact that immigration increases the size of the labour force and therefore puts downward pressure on wages. It suggests that immigration shifts the aggregate demand curve to the right and this can increase inflationary pressure which ultimately raises wages. There is also the chance that this could lead to an outward migration of domestic workers as their jobs are taken by those coming into the country. Below is an extract from the article:

The model shows the flow of immigrants in the centre of the diagram, and the well-recognised downward impact on domestic wages through increased supply. The extent to which increased supply of immigrants can impact domestic wages depends on the occupational attainment of immigrants, and the extent to which immigrants are substitutes for domestic labour.

The left-hand side of the diagram shows the added effect of immigration, with an upward effect on domestic wages through increased demand for goods and services and new job creation. This effect can explain why wage decreases may not result after an influx of immigrants. In addition, a feedback loop is shown on the right-hand side, which shows that if downward pressure on wages is created, outward migration of immigrant or domestic workforce would have an increasing feedback effect on wages. The out-migration part of the diagram is pertinent to New Zealand due to its geographic and institutional proximity to Australia.

Immigration Wages

Why is New Zealand’s labour market still weak?

NZ Unemp  empJust covering the labour market with my A2 class and New Zealand at present gives some good examples of labour market imperfections. You would think with the commencement of the major rebuild in Christchurch would have positive effects on the New Zealand labour market. Economists had forecast unemployment to drop below 6% at the end of 2012 however the December quarter had the rate at 6.9%. The Westpac Economic Overview came up with some reasons as to why employers have been reluctant to take on more labour.

1. Employers are increasing the hours that labour is working rather than taking more on. After the GFC a lot of employers kept labour but reduced their working hours so when the economy starts to grow there is a tendency for them to increase the working hours rather than employing new staff.

2. There has a lack of geographical mobility as workers have been reluctant to move away from areas of New Zealand that have weak growth to those that require more labour – eg. Canterbury. Since late 2010 job vacancies in Christchurch have increased dramatically and employers have found it increasingly difficult to find labour = wages have risen faster in Canterbury than most of New Zealand. The RBNZ reported that this two-speed labour market is suffering from the lowest matching efficiency – the speed with which job vacancies and additions to the labour force translate into jobs. This implies higher wages and higher unemployment than normal.

3. The high NZ$ make imported capital cheaper and there has been an increase in a firms’ intentions to invest in plant and equipment (form overseas) but a reluctance to spend money on new buildings or labour.

Minutes of work required to buy a beer.

The Economist came out with another interesting chart – the required number of minutes you need to work in order to buy 500ml of beer. Some figures:

US workers need to work 5 minutes
Germans – 7 minutes
Czech Republic – 7 minutes
Australia – 12 minutes
UK – 14 minutes
Mexico – 15 minutes
Philippines – 38 minutes
India – 54 minutes
World average – 20 minutes

Growing adult populations and rising living standards mean that beer consumption in emerging markets is booming. Drinkers there drank two-thirds of the world’s beer in 2011. By 2016, it will be 72%.

Top 1% to blame for the financial crisis?

Former IMF Chief Economist and the person who saw the financial crisis coming, Raghuram Rajan, has argued that inequality caused the crisis and the US government helped in the process. Since the days of the Reagan Administration wages of the working class American have been falling behind. Reagan, as with Thatcher in the UK, introduced pro market reforms in the 1980’s but recent presidents have addressed the problem of stagnant wages by making access to mortgage finance a lot easier.

In 2007 – 23.5% of all American income went to the top 1% of earners – the highest percentage since 1929. Research has shown that the behaviour of the richest 20% has affected the spending of the bottom 80% – the more the rich spend the more the lower incomes want to keep up with them. It is commonly know as ‘trickle-down consumption’.

Less equitable distribution of wealth can boost demand for government borrowing to provide for the lower income. In the last decade this borrowing would have occurred with financial globalisation that allowed many governments to rack up debt cheaply. It seems that the ease of credit drives inequality.

McWages – minutes to earn a Big Mac

You will have heard to the Big Mac index which was developed by The Economist magazine. It shows the purchasing power parity (PPP) between two currencies and provides a test of the extent to which market exchange rates result in goods costing the same in different countries. Reading the WSJ, Orley C. Ashenfelter of Princeton University has come up with McWages which shows the number of minutes a McDonald’s employee needs to work in each country to buy a Big Mac. Ashenfelter states that McDonald’s workers in most countries perform similar tasks to produce an homogeneous product – the Big Mac. So by calculating the amount of time an employee needs to work to afford a Big Mac you can show how wages differ across countries. Poorer countries tend to have McDonald’s employees working longer than their counterparts in the developed world. In China you would have to work 85 minutes as compared to 27 minutes in the US. Workers in India and China saw improvements between 2000 and 2007. While the real wage — or Big Macs per hour worked — was virtually unchanged in developed countries during the period, China’s and India’s real wages grew 9% and 8% per year, respectively.

Ashenfelter also notes a worrying effect of the financial crisis. Between 2007 and 2011, the growth of real wages slowed in China, while Indian workers actually lost ground — going from 168 minutes in 2007 to about 195 in 2011. The U.S. and Western Europe lost ground during the period as well.

Germany’s economy races ahead but what about the “mini-jobs”?

The Week magazine produced a very informative article on the German Labour market which focused on the creation of mini-jobs and their impact on the German economy. The German economy is racing ahead of the pack in the eurozone area and when you look at its fundamentals you wonder if it is going lap its counterparts. With unemployment in the eurozone reaching an all-time high of 10.7% the level in Germany is at its lowest for for 20 years at 6.7%. The German success is due in part to the weakness of the euro which has fallen 15% against the US$ since 2008. The weaker euro makes all European exports cheaper and Germany has been very well placed to take advantage of this. – in 2011 it recorded a trade surplus of €158bn. However Germany wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for some major reforms in its economy 10 years previous. As the other EU countries relaxed labour laws Germany used the global boom to tighten its regulations.

German Reform
By early 2000, and 10 years after reunification, Germany was seen as the sick man of Europe. Unemployment had reached 10.5% by 2003 and then Chancellor Gerhard Schroder asked Peter Hartz (Head of HR at Volkswagen) to look at the labour market. He concluded that German work practices were outdated when a single earner could support households with 9 to 5 jobs at the same time there were generous unemployment benefits. In its place he proposed “mini-jobs” and 2007 10 million Germans had a mini-job with 7 million relying on them as their only source of income.

What are the benefits?
The main idea was to create as much flexibility as possible. The main characteristics are as follows:

1. Mini-jobs pay up €400 a month
2. Employers must assist another €100 to the state for social security benefits.
3. As long as the €400 limits not breached, workers pay no tax
4. They can do as many mini-jobs as they like.
5. The jobs are designed to be picked up and dropped at short notice.

This flexibility meant that during the major recession of 2009 Germany did not experience mass lay-offs. In fact the government implemented a programme which allowed employers to cut the hours of employees and the government would subsidise the remainder of the employees pay.

Although a very competitive low-wage economy was built it has widen the divide between the income levels in the labour market. In fact after the US and South Korea, Germany has one of the most unequal labour markets in the developed world. As there is no set minimum wage for “mini-jobs” a person can earn €4 a hour to under €1 per hour. With around 50% of the labour force in “mini-jobs” there is a free market in which wages have been falling. Between 2000-2010 average salaries rose, but low incomes – those below €960 a month – fell by 10%. Almost 1.5 million people with “mini-jobs” now rely on the state for benefits, including 358,000 who work full time but can’t live off their pay. See video clip below from Deutsche Welle.

Data backs up OWS claims

Here is a great graphic from the Economic Policy Institute in the US. The Occupy Wall Street protesters claims are backed up when you look at the graph below. Data is inflation-adjusted.

Bottom 90% of households saw a 5% increase in income
Top 1% of households saw a 224% increase in income
Top 0.1% of households saw a 390% increse in income

The major increases happened during the Clinton Administration especially with the repeal of the Glass Stegal Act in 1997 – 0.1% and 1% incomes increased dramatically after this period. The drop in the % increase was no doubt due to the Dot Com collapse but picked up considerably with an aggressive expansionary policy from the US Fed after 9/11.

Do we have anything like this in NZ?

NZIER economist Shamubeel Eaqub stated that the wage income gap between high and low income has been broadly stable over the past decade and there is nothing in the figures to suggest massive increases in inequality or inequity.