Thursday, 16 October 2014

The living wage is good for employers; unless lots of employers pay a living wage

The living wage is back in the news this week, with The Warehouse Group being held up as an example for other (especially retail) employers in terms of looking after the wellbeing of their workers. From this Bernard Hickey piece in the New Zealand Herald:
The Warehouse is one of a growing number of companies paying a "Living Wage". From August 1, it started paying 4100 of its workers a "Career Retailer Wage" of at least $18.50 an hour. To qualify, they must have full training and 5000 hours' experience. It represents a pay increase of 10-20 per cent.
Warehouse CEO Mark Powell estimated it would cost almost $6 million in extra wages, but it was an investment worth making...
This week, union researchers Eileen Blair, Annabel Newman and Sophia Blair delivered a paper to the Population Health Congress in Auckland on the experience of employers and workers who have adopted the Living Wage, currently $18.80 an hour - 32 per cent above the $14.25 minimum wage.
They interviewed four employers and found a variety of reasons for adopting the Living Wage, including that it was the right thing to do.
But there were more practical reasons, including wanting employees paid enough to buy their products, reducing staff turnover and having staff motivated to produce a great product or service.
You can read the research paper by Brown, Newman and Blair here (pdf), and read more about the living wage campaign in New Zealand here.

I thought a blog post on the living wage was timely given that my ECON110 class has just covered the economics of social security, poverty and inequality, and related policy, so this research provides an interesting kick-off point. As Bernard Hickey points out in his article, Henry Ford introduced a $5-a-day wage at Ford factories in 1914 (although Hickey makes the mistake of buying into the story that this was done so that Ford's workers could afford to buy cars - Tim Worstall and others have already thoroughly debunked that story). The $5-a-day wage might not seem like much, but it was about double the ‘normal’ factory wage at the time. Ford had a huge number of job applications (not surprising - they were the highest paying employer around at the time). Staff turnover fell, absenteeism fell, and productivity rose so much that Ford’s production costs decreased even though they were paying much higher wages.

What Ford had introduced was what we term an efficiency wage. A wage that is voluntarily offered by an employer and is above the equilibrium wage in the labour market. Employers offer these efficiency wages because they know they have positive effects - they attract and retain higher quality employees who work harder for the firm, higher productivity, lower absenteeism and lower staff turnover. Why do all these good effects happen? In the simplest sense, having lots of job applicants and being the first-choice employer for most available workers means you get to choose the best (most productive) workers.

But the good effects go beyond the selection of job applicants, because of the incentives that the efficiency wage creates. If an employee is working for you for a wage that is well above equilibrium, then they have a strong incentive not to shirk, not to take too many dodgy sick days, and generally to work hard for you. Why? Because if they don't and they lose their job, then the best possible outcome for them is that they go back to working somewhere else for a much lower wage. Alternatively, maybe the employees just work harder for their employer because they feel good feelings for the employer who is paying them very well. There is plenty of support for the idea of efficiency wages, including research by myself and Steven Lim and others in Thailand, and there are some good quotes from employers in the Blair et al. research report, like this one:
When you spend a lot of money training someone up you don’t want them to just leave three months later, or six months later; you kind of want them to stick around for a year or two. If they feel like they can earn more money and save up more and then go travel for longer, they’ll stick around a lot longer and the productivity will go up...
Now, the living wage is a good example of an efficiency wage. If you pay your semi-skilled (say, retail) employees $18.80 per hour, you are paying above the minimum wage and well above the equilibrium wage. So I'm not surprised that The Warehouse, and the four employers that Blair et al. interviewed for their study, have seen positive gains from paying a living wage. The alternative for their employees is to work somewhere else for (probably much) less, so working hard for more pay might be an attractive option to them.

What's good for a few employers (and their employees) must be great if all employers follow suit, right? If every employer paid a living wage much higher than the mandated minimum wage, won't everyone be better off? Not so fast. The gains from paying an efficiency wage arise because the alternative jobs for employees pay much less. If every other employer is also paying a high wage, then the employees don't need to work so hard because if they lose their job they can go somewhere else that is also paying a high wage. Same goes for absenteeism, staff turnover, etc. The benefits of the efficiency wage evaporate if lots of employers pay efficiency wages.

So, it's likely that the observed gains for employers from paying a living wage of $18.80 (rather than the minimum wage $14.25) are only sustainable so long as the living wage isn't mandatory for all employers. As Bob Jones rightly points out, forcing employers to pay much higher wages is just going to force those with slender margins (including a lot of small-scale retailers) out of business. This would reduce the number of available jobs for semi-skilled workers. According to the Treasury (quoting an MBIE estimate), raising the minimum wage to the living wage would cost 25,000 jobs. Most of these lost jobs would be in accommodation and food services, and retail trade.

Overall, the living wage might have some positive effects for those employers who offer it. But the idea that it should be rolled out by all employers is clearly being oversold if the gains to employers are essentially those that arise from paying an efficiency wage.

[HT: Tracey from my ECON110(NET) class, for pointing me to the Tim Worstall piece on the Ford $5 workday]

[Update: Fixed broken link]

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