Minimum wage should be a living wage

During the budget speech on Monday, we were informed of the statutory (annual) increase to the minimum wage as of next January. It is a €1.75 increase, as we well know. Many have commented that it is not enough. It is a natural reaction which we hear about almost year in year out.

When an increase in the minimum wage, also referred to as a cost-of-living increase, does not correspond to the actual increase in the cost of living, it creates a lot of problems for vulnerable persons and groups. It also erodes the value of wages currently above the minimum. This occurs because the basket of goods and services used to gauge the cost-of-living increase is out of tune and does not correspond to what is actually occurring on the ground.

Greens have repeatedly insisted on the need to replace the current basket of goods and services used to determine the minimum wage. The contents of such a basket cannot be static as our needs change with time continuously.

Caritas in Malta has carried out various studies in this respect. The latest was carried out and published in December 2020 and focused on three low-income household categories. It is entitled: A Minimum Essential Budget for a Decent Living. I have already written on the matter in these pages (A minimum income for a decent living: 7 February 2021). In respect of a family composed of 2 adults and 2 children, it was concluded, in the Caritas study, that the minimum budget required at 2020 prices was slightly under €14,000. That is approximately €4,000 over and above the actual minimum wage. Those earning a minimum wage are clearly the working poor. The minimum wage is not a living wage

Prior to the budget announced earlier this week Finance Minister Clyde Caruana made many noises on a proposal that, he said, he was planning for the budget speech. The proposal he had in mind would address the needs of vulnerable persons which needs, the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) does not address. However, when push came to shove no such proposal materialised: the Minister declared that together with MCESD he will only study the matter further!

A consultation process on a proposal for an EU Directive on adequate minimum wages within the EU has been under way for some time. The proposal seeks to determine the manner in which an adequate minimum wage is to be determined. The impact assessment carried out relative to the EU proposals emphasises that “Minimum wages can be considered adequate when they are fair vis-à-vis the wages of other workers and when they provide a decent standard of living, taking into account general economic conditions in the country.” The EU proposal proposes the creation of a “double decency threshold” which would ensure decent minimum wages. This threshold is expressed in terms of the median and average wages in the different member states.

Malta is one of nine European countries where the statutory minimum wage does not protect minimum wage earners against the risk of poverty. Yet Malta is one of the countries which is opposing a mandatory EU Directive addressing the adequacy of the minimum wage!

The Caritas study has already revealed that the gap between the minimum wage and the required level of decency is to the tune of €4,000 per annum. The longer it takes for action to materialise the wider the gap will become.  It is the minimum wage which must increase, not government handouts.

Making work pay? The minimum wage should be a living wage: it should be sufficient for the basic needs of a family, but unfortunately it is not. We need an economy which cares.

We should not wait for an EU solution to our minimum wage problem. The Caritas study has indicated the way forward many moons ago. Yet Parliament keeps ignoring it!  Only Green Members of Parliament can ensure that Parliament addresses this decency gap thereby ensuring that the minimum wage is also living wage.