Thai­land’s wage de­bate ig­nores ob­scene in­comes of su­per­wealthy

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

The Thai min­i­mum wage — the low­est pay­ment al­lowed un­der the law to un­skilled la­bor — is al­ways linked with how good the econ­omy will be do­ing and how “at­trac­tive” a coun­try is to for­eign in­vestors.

When­ever work­ers want more, there’s an out­cry. When the Yingluck ad­min­is­tra­tion sought to ful­fill its elec­tion cam­paign pledge of a 300 baht ( US$9.21) daily min­i­mum wage, crit­ics rounded on it. Now, it’s the in­terim Prayuth gov­ern­ment’s turn to face the of­ten-ex­plo­sive is­sue.

No­body cares how much cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives are paid. This is de­spite the fact that even a frac­tion of their earn­ings could sig­nif­i­cantly boost the in­come of those at the low­est end of the econ­omy.

Ex­ec­u­tives’ salaries are not legally capped, and fig­ures are of­ten glo­ri­fied and not cringed at. When the la­bor move­ment wants 20 baht more per day for the un­skilled work­ers, it of­ten sends econ­o­mists scram­bling to point out how omi­nous the fig­ure is.

The battle will be over some­thing higher than 20 baht this time.

A la­bor ad­vo­cacy group has called for a min­i­mum wage of 360 baht per day, a 60 baht rise. It has been a tra­di­tion for the la­bor move­ment to drive a tough bar­gain at the be­gin­ning, so it’s safe to say that the fi­nal con­ten- tious amount should be around 30-40 baht.

Even that would make en­trepreneurs squirm. The Fed­er­a­tion of Thai In­dus­tries has come out to baulk at the 60 baht fig­ure, cit­ing weak de­mand in do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional mar­kets.

There are few na­tional is­sues sim­pler than the min­i­mum wage. Work­ers want more but their em­ploy­ers want to pay the least they can.

The gov­ern­ment is of­ten caught in the mid­dle, as sup­port­ing busi­ness lead­ers is al­ways bad pol­i­tics but back­ing the work­ers could be at the ex­pense of “com­pet­i­tive­ness” in the eyes of for­eign in­vestors.

The three par­ties — the gov­ern­ment, em­ploy­ers and work­ers — are rep­re­sented in the tri­par­tite na­tional com­mit­tee that will have a fi­nal say on how much the un­skilled la­bor should be paid.

When the Yingluck ad­min­is­tra­tion was push­ing for a min­i­mum wage hike, a key rea­son cited to de­fend the plan was that bet­teroff work­ers could spend more and thus help boost the econ­omy. The other side claimed a dras­tic rise would first lead to lay-offs, which couldn’t be good for the econ­omy.

Both camps could be right. It’s only that the lat­ter rather real­is­ti­cally as­sumed that the pay hike would make the costs bal­loon, as there was no way those at the high end of the econ­omy would make any sac­ri­fice.

The sup­port­ers of the Yingluck gov­ern­ment’s plan were more ide­al­is­tic. They as­sumed that the pay in­crease would not af­fect em­ploy­ment and thus it should help the econ­omy since a bet­ter-paid work­force would mean greater spend­ing power.

But with ex­ec­u­tives un­likely to lower their pay, pro­duc­tion costs would nat­u­rally rise and “greater spend­ing power” would come at the ex­pense of some job ter­mi­na­tions and a higher cost of living.

The min­i­mum wage, there­fore, is deeply linked not only to how much work­ers want but also with the at­ti­tude of those at the top of the eco­nomic pyra­mid.

It’s too bad that the lat­ter have rarely been taken into the equa­tion. The min­i­mum wage is of­ten about “com­pet­i­tive­ness” or “po­lit­i­cal games” played by la­bor groups whereas the bot­tom-line should have been the shar­ing of good times and bad times be­tween work­ers and their em­ploy­ers.

As of now, “good times” and “bad times” are so dif­fer­ent be­tween the two groups. To one side, a “good time” could mean an ex­tra 30 baht curry on the ta­ble whereas the “bad time” of the other side could mean re­nounc­ing a 8,000 baht wine and set­tling for a 1,500 baht bot­tle. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished on The Na­tion on Apr. 11.

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