A living wage provides families with a decent standard of living. But governments often set the legal minimum wage below the subsistence level to attract foreign investment.
What is a living wage?
- A living wage is a family concept—it must support a family, not just a worker.
- A living wage provides for basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, healthcare), and more than that: education, childcare, and transportation.
- A living wage provides discretionary income and savings.
- A living wage must be earned during normal working hours (not overtime).
- A living wage is the take-home pay or net wage.
- A living wage excludes bonuses and all non-basic payments that are not guaranteed to all workers.
Government authorities use a variety of means—ranging from bureaucratic maneuvers and policies to the use of force and the criminalization of worker organizing and advocacy—to attract foreign investors with cheap labor.
Governments set legal minimum wages below the official poverty line and below the subsistence level. They fail to adjust the wage rate to inflation to maintain workers’ purchasing power. They fail to enforce minimum wage policies, depriving workers of their legal entitlements. They encourage informal and precarious labor practices that further erode workers’ access to legally mandated monetary and social benefits.
At the same time, governments sometimes meet workers’ wage protests with force and brutality. In Bangladesh and Cambodia, for example, tens of thousands of workers have taken to the streets to demand higher wages, only to be met by police swinging batons and even firing live ammunition, while labor leaders have faced false criminal charges of instigating violence and riots.
Often the large buyers—western retailers and brands—are the hidden forces behind government crackdowns on protesting workers and low minimum wage levels. They demand low prices and quick deliveries from factories. Low prices can mean no money to pay workers living wages or invest in safe and decent working conditions. Quick delivery demands result in production peaks that may require subcontracting to facilities that operate with small margins and without government oversight.