Labour relations and labour market institutions
While technology is making capital cheaper, policies like the national minimum wage will make labour more expensive. What does this mean for the choices firms make in terms of labour and capital inputs? This research shows that higher prices for labour will result in lower demand for labour, making job creation more difficult. Low-skilled and high-skilled labour are substitutes – higher wages for low-skilled workers will encourage firms to employ more high-skilled workers and become more skill intensive.
Predicting the impact of a national minimum wage: are the general equilibrium models up to the task?
This article analyses whether computable general equilibrium (CGE) models are suitable for projecting the likely consequences of implementing a national minimum wage. Referring to modelling exercises undertaken by the National Treasury and the Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU), it shows that their projection of a strongly negative impact on employment and other macroeconomic indicators is a direct result of the architecture and assumptions of these models. By design these models preclude alternative outcomes; this renders them rather unsuitable as guides to policymaking.
Do low-paid workers’ wage increases raise unemployment – and is this relevant for the minimum wage debate?
Increasing the wages of workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution contributes less to regional unemployment than increasing the wages of better-paid workers. The wages of the worst-paid – who live in regions of low union and large-firm concentration – play almost no role in unemployment. Collective bargaining arrangements appear to explain these differences. This phenomenon may soften the negative impact of a national minimum wage on employment in the short run, but might make matters worse in the longer run.
Have real wages fallen behind or increased out of line with productivity? A macroeconomic perspective
Macroeconomic data on wages and productivity suggest that there has not been any constant tendency for real wages either to fall behind or increase out of line with increases in productivity. Upward shifts have affected real wages sporadically, but have subsequently been offset by downward shifts, leaving a one-to-one long-run relationship between real wages and productivity. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom in both the labour union and business worlds.
The public debate on a national minimum wage sometimes appears to occur in different universes. Two recent contributions to Econ3x3 may help to take the debate forward. This article analyses and contrasts these views and finds that, though they emphasise (and underplay) different aspects, the differences may not be insurmountable – especially once one recognises that the proposals apply to different time frames. [A shorter version of this article appeared as an op-ed article in Business Day on 25 June 2015. See references.]
Most contributions to the debate on a national minimum wage adopt a narrow view of labour markets and accept that the structure of the economy will remain essentially as it is. We question both of these assumptions. Further, we argue that a national minimum wage, at a level to be determined through careful research, must be part of a well-designed package of longer-term policy reforms that look beyond the labour market and support employment growth through investment.
The debate about implementing a national minimum wage obscures the key point, which is the level at which a national minimum wage should be set. A national minimum wage at a much higher level than the sectoral minimum wages currently set by the Employment Conditions Commission or agreed upon by unions under the Labour Relations Act is likely to result in job destruction, especially in the tradable sectors, with the result that poverty might be increased rather than reduced.
What happens when a previously unregulated labour market is regulated? After the introduction of minimum wages and mandatory employment contracts for domestic workers, wages increased markedly while neither employment nor hours worked declined; some formalisation of working conditions also occurred. All these occurred despite a lack of monitoring and enforcement, suggesting that such actions (often costly) are not essential for regulation to have a significant impact on informal employment conditions, at least in the short run.
The introduction of minimum wage laws in five non-agricultural sectors has not been associated with a significant loss in employment in the years following their promulgation – a period when most sectors also saw a significant increase in real hourly wages. Indeed, several sectors recorded an increase in employment. However, in some sectors there is evidence of a relatively small reduction in the hours worked by employees. On the whole, the effects of minimum wages are varied.
Past studies have found that trade union members earn substantially higher wages than non-union workers. New results suggest a much lower union wage premium (6-7%) when the impact of the size of the firm, the type of employment and non-wage benefits are properly taken into account. On the other hand, bargaining council agreements have a higher impact on wages than unions do, so that the cumulative wage premium of unions and bargaining councils averages more than 16%. For the public sector this can be as high as 22%.