Wages in Economic Theory and Reality: Some Issues

Wages is the payment made to a labourer for the number of hours worked – sowing seeds, rolling tobacco, developing computer software or providing medical care in a hospital. How are these wages determined? Are they determined in a similar manner as that of commodities? That is, are they determined based on some sort of demand and supply mechanism? Or, are they predominantly set by non-economic forces which are not easily quantifiable? This blog post looks at the dominant neoclassical or marginalist viewpoint and contrasts it with the theoretical approach of classical economics. In this light, the post examines certain characteristics of the Indian economy relating to labour and employment.

The basic principles of neoclassical economics tell us that the price and quantity demanded and supplied of a commodity are determined by the intersection of its demand and supply curves. This is the demand and supply approach to economics. When extended to labour, the intersection of the demand and supply curves of labour is supposed to determine the wages per hour (the price of labour) and the number of hours worked (the quantity of labour). Therefore, an increase in the demand for labour relative to its supply is expected to raise the wage rate and a relative increase in supply of labour (say, from an increase in the working population commonly termed the demographic dividend) leads to a fall in the wage rate.

Classical economics, a distinct theoretical framework in economics, has a very different view of wages. It largely considers wages as an exogenous variable; that is, wages are not determined by market forces – demand and supply of commodities or of labour. Of course, temporary changes can be brought about by market forces. In the theoretical world of classical economics, wages are determined primarily by socio-cultural factors such as trade union strength, the collective notion of minimum wages for different occupations and the society’s views on trust, risk, etc. In this theoretical world, which to me, seems closer to the reality, an improvement in social institutions lead to an increase in subsistence wages. Wages, in this framework, has a subsistence (relatively fixed) component and a surplus (relatively flexible) component. Hence, classical economics allows for an increase in wages, in its surplus component, when GDP is rising on account of higher labour productivity.

A conflict is present in the distribution of GDP between workers and capitalists. Neoclassical economics eliminates this conflict by recourse to marginal productivity theory. By employing logically fallacious concepts (especially of capital), a theory of distribution has been erected where both labour and ‘capital’ are ‘justly’ remunerated. In this framework, trade unions distort the market and causes injustice! According to classical economics, the presence of strong trade unions and fair labour laws ensure that workers get a fair share of productivity gains, which will otherwise entirely go as profits of the capitalists. The Global Wage Report 2012/13 published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes that in several countries wage rises have not matched the increase in employment and productivity (see especially p. 28).

There are enormous disparities in wage rates across the states in India, with Kerala paying relatively high wages. One reason for the high wages is the presence of strong trade unions. As per the Labour Bureau (as part of the Rural Labour Enquiry) report on ‘Wage Rates in Rural India’ for September 2012, the average daily wage rates for men for engaging in sowing in Gujarat is 132 rupees; in Kerala, it is 500 rupees; and in Tamil Nadu, it is 222.02 rupees. A carpenter in Gujarat is paid 233.33 rupees daily; in Kerala, he is paid 514.05 rupees and in Tamil Nadu, he is paid 388.6 rupees. The differences are starker with respect to unskilled labour: a male unskilled worker in Gujarat gets paid 109 rupees; in Kerala, he earns 411.32 rupees; and in Tamil Nadu, he earns 223.54 rupees. The corresponding wages for a female worker are: 101.71 rupees in Gujarat, 266 rupees in Kerala and 159. 76 rupees in Tamil Nadu. Note the gender-wage inequality in Kerala. Also, the economic condition in rural Kerala is significantly better than rural Tamil Nadu; therefore, the statistics will have to be interpreted with some restraint.

Subsistence wage, as a concept, has enormous theoretical and practical significance. In fact, the legislations pertaining to minimum wages in India ought to look at socio-cultural factors too, such as gender, caste, geographic location, kind of labour (formal vs. informal, rural vs. urban) and so on. The enforcement of minimum wages has been beset with difficulties as evident from a recent study (published in 2011) by Patrick Belser and Uma Rani; the proportion of salaried workers and the proportion of casual workers below the minimum wage at the national level is 25.3 and 50.6 per cent respectively. Discussions on and about subsistence wages, and by extension, on minimum wage legislations are much needed. Moreover, discussions surrounding subsistence wages can also result in more dignified definitions of poverty and minimum wages.

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