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Unfounded Obsession With the Greek Minimum Wage

The Greek minimum wage is apparently a point of contention between the Troika (ECB/EU/IMF) and the Greek government. The NY Times cites competitiveness gains as a rationale for the minimum wage cut:

The goal of any pay cuts would be to help make Greek workers, who are generally less productive than workers elsewhere in Europe, able to compete more effectively inside the euro zone, where countries share a common currency that does not allow devaluations to help even out differences in labor costs.

Huh? See below. The going line seems to be that the Greeks are lazy. They earn minimum government-negotiated wages without actually doing a whole lot because they’re uncompetitive. This is wrong; the data do not support this view.

First, the Greek people aren’t lazy at all. In fact, Greek workers spent more hours working 2010 (in annual hours actually worked per worker) than those in Chile, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Turkey, Mexico, Slovak Republic, Italy, the US, New Zealand, Japan, Portugal, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Australia, Ireland, Slovenia, Spain, the UK, Sweden, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands – and in that order. (You can download and view the data from the OECD 2011 Employment Outlook.) Marc Chandler also highlighted this fact back in January.

Sure, one could argue that the Greek workers work a lot of hours, but it’s for less output. Furthermore, labor costs have risen substantially relative to other Euro area countries, so the country’s worse off. That’s the uncompetitiveness route. If you care about productivity and relative wage gains, why not look at the drop in Greece’s relative unit labor costs?

The chart below illustrates the average accumulated gain/loss in nominal labor costs (labor costs per hour) across the EA 12 in the run-up to the crisis, 2005-2008, and then since the recession, 2009-Q32011 (Finland data unavailable). By this measure, Greece is certainly doing what the Troika want of it: relative devaluation in nominal labor costs. Since 2009, Greek labor costs have fallen 5.3%.

(Note: the data are constructed as the percentage gain/loss of the average 2008 quarterly labor costs over the average of 2005 labor costs versus the average of Q4 2010 to Q3 2011 labor costs over the average 2009 quarterly labor costs, all working-day adjusted.)

French and Austrian labor costs appreciated 12% and 10.7%, respectively, spanning 2005-2008, and another 5.7% and 4.0%, respectively, since 2009. In Ireland, the 1.8% average reduction in labor costs since 2009 pales in comparison to the 2005-2008 14.7% surge. Greece saw a lower accumulated gain in labor costs spanning 2005-2008 than most countries and cut labor costs since 2009. The ‘wage’ cost anger towards Greece seems to be misdirected.

Now I’m really wondering what is this obsession with the Greek minimum wage? True, the Greek minimum wage did rise 0.8% spanning 2010-2011 (you can see Eurostat data here). However, as a proportion of average monthly earnings, the 2010 minimum wage in Greece is roughly in line with other program countries, Ireland and Portugal, and lower than that in France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

Only in 2011 do Greece’s policies stick out when monthly minimum wage as a proportion of average monthly earnings surged to 50.1%. However, simple calculations demonstrate that for Greece the higher 2011 ratio of minimum wage to average monthly earnings was largely a function of falling average monthly earnings, -18.7%, rather than the rise in the minimum wage, +0.8%.

Perhaps I am not understanding things clearly here – I am sure that you all will correct me if I am not – but what’s this obsession with minimum wages? It looks to me like the fiscal austerity driven recession is indeed resulting in a reduction in Greece’s relative labor costs irrespective of minimum wage policy. Isn’t that the point?

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Emre Deliveli The Kapali Carsi

Emre Deliveli is a freelance consultant, part-time lecturer in economics and columnist. Previously, Emre worked as economist for Citi Istanbul, covering Turkey and the Balkans. He was previously Director of Economic Studies at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara and has has also worked at the World Bank, OECD, McKinsey and the Central Bank of Turkey. Emre holds a B.A., summa cum laude, from Yale University and undertook his PhD studies at Harvard University, in Economics.

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