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The Economics of Minimum Wage

(This article was first published in the HImalayan Times on the 22nd of July, 2018.)

Sometimes, the most noble of intentions might yet produce severe unintended and negative consequences. Nepal’s minimum wage law comes ominouslyclose to achieving this feat.

We, as a country, are setting out on a mission to achieve unprecedented levels of growth and create new economic opportunities. We need all the international and domestic investments we can secure in order to trigger that growth. Our policies, institutions and hard infrastructures will greatly determine how successful we become towards that end. But the minimum wage law seems to be incompatible with investment targets; it also appears to have overlooked domestic labour scene.

Scaring away investors

From foreign investment perspective, the new minimum wage (Rs. 13,450) which is a 38% growth from previous minimum wage makes Nepalese labour the most expensive in the region. Merge that with Nepal’s dismal performance in other global competitiveness indices like the Doing Business Index or Corruption Perception Index or Economic Freedom Index (just some among many), any prospective investor could quickly put off thoughts of bringing investments here. It already takes months to acquire a business visa to Nepal. According to the Doing Business Report, it takes 339 hours just to pay federal taxes and three years to enforce contracts.

No investor will research all small initiatives regarding foreign investment promotion in a new host country before making investment decision. They will look at these indicators and work out what country offers them the highest prospect of return. Towards that end, such dismal performance plus minimum wages that have grown 400% in the last decade while labour productivity has failed to keep pace will not help.

An ignorance of domestic reality

Cost of labour is an important factor from a domestic investment perspective as well. Formalisation of labour and organic wage growths are other couple of important aspects of labour.

If we look back at the last couple of years of Nepal’s economy, construction industry has grown at one of the fastest rates. Demand of construction workers is therefore high. Consequently, the wages of construction workers have skyrocketed. Today, one can hardly find a mason who will work for below Rs. 1500 a day. This is way above the government-set daily minimum wage. This simple example goes to show that if we create opportunities for investments to flourish and industries to grow, the government does not have to intervene and set workers’ wages in order to guarantee a decent income to them.

But then again, there is a great number of workers in the service and agro industry who have not seen their wages grow at similar rates. This might beg a question as to what we do about them. But even here, we have to be weary of the fact that a great many of these workers (who make the least income) in these sectors are informal workers in the first place. Therefore, a raise in minimum wage does not really enhance their economic positions. In fact, that brings us to another greater risk – the risk of lay-offs.

Risk of lay-off is real

Once again, for an investor (domestic or foreign) labour poroductivity matters. If the labour productivity increases in a similar rate as wages, then s/he can churn out greater profits from her/his business and everybody is happy. But when labour productivity does not increase at the same rate (which is what is happening in Nepal), then it is only a matter of time before the investor starts thinking of laying off workers and getting the same job done through fewer workers. Of course, s/he could offer some raise to those workers who are more productive and can take in some extra load. Such a raise will have come at the cost of the worker that is laid off. In the end, the law that was supposed to help the worker got her/him out of the job.

Minimum wage should not disincentivise

When we argue that minimum wage should cover at least the basic needs of an individual, we should be careful that a minimum wage does not put an individual in a position that s/he no longer needs to worry about being more productive or enhancing her/his economic position further. At best, it should be a support position while s/he starts out as an economic actor. It should be a position that everyone wants to grow out of. In that sense, it should incentivize an individual to be more productive, and not the stagnate.

Looking back at our minimum wage policy and the growth of minimum wages over the years, this will be another very important factor to look into two years from now when we sit to revise it again; if we continue to live with this policy until then, that is.

Akash Shrestha

About Akash Shrestha

Akash Shrestha is Coordinator of the Research Department at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation where his focus areas are petroleum trade and public enterprises. He also writes newspaper articles, blogs and radio capsules, based on the findings of the studies conducted by The Foundation.

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