How do you support low income workers to reduce inequality? – A Singapore Case Study

I have lived in Singapore for two years now and am always interested in the nuances to the city state’s economy. In some measures Singapore has the one of the highest levels of Gross Domestic Product per capita in the world. As measured using Purchasing Power Parity, Singapore is ranked 7th in the world with $53,900 GDP per capita

Marina Bay Sands - Singapore - World's Most Expensive Standalone Casino at SG $8 Billion - credit (me)

Singapore also has a high, and growing level of income inequality which has been associated with the form of rapid economic growth. In 2009 Singapore was ranked as having the second highest level of income inequality in developed countries, with a Gini Coefficient score of 0.425. Hong Kong was 1st and USA 3rd. In most rapidly developing economies (China, Brazil, India) strong economic growth is leading to growing income inequality. The gains from growth are not being shared equally between all citizens and the rich continue to get richer at the expense of the poor. Here are some economic indicators from Singapore.

  • Last year in 2010, Singapore’s economy Gross Domestic Product expanded by 14.7%. This is the fastest rate of economic growth in the world.
  • Since 1989 it’s GDP per capita has risen from $16,000 to $48,000.
  • Total Gross Domestic Product in Singapore Dollars has increased from $56 Billion in 1989 to $265 Billion.
  • The bottom 10% of the population now account for only 5% of the national income, compared to the top 10% of people who account for 49% of the income.

Each of the above statistics supports the economic goals of Singapore except for the last bullet point. Singapore believes in inclusive growth and attaches a high degree of importance on the ideals of social cohesion. These statistics are a challenge to the goals of the country, which aims to allow all families to live in dignity and with material self sufficiency.

Therefore one possible way to increase the income of the lowest people is to introduce the concept of a minimum wage. Currently the free market determines the market wage. For some occupations such as cleaners, constructions workers and domestic helpers the market is awash which cheap labour from neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh. This drives down the market wage. The average domestic live in helper in Singapore would make $120 a week and construction workers slightly more. These workers also have the lowest bargaining power and are often unable to negotiate for higher wages. Thus free market wage seems to disadvantage low income workers in Singapore.

Introducing a Minimum Wage:

The minimum wage is a wage floor. In Singapore, employers would not be allowed to pay their employees a rate below the minimum wage and this presumes the minimum wage was binding and set above the prevailing market rates. Some would call this a living wage and would be set to enable citizens to enjoy a basic standard of life and subsistence.

The negative aspects of the minimum wage legislation would be an increase in unemployment. After the introduction of the minimum wage the market demand for workers would fall to LD. At a higher wage firms have less incentive to hire workers. The other important feature is that Labour Supply would increase at the level of the new minimum wage. More workers would be attracted into the workforce. This therefore creates a disequilibrium where Labour Demand does not equal Labour Supply. In the Labour Market this is known as unemployment. In Singapore potential foreign investors could be less willing to invest in a country with higher labour costs and the nations competitiveness with other economies could fall. After the introduction of minimum wages in Japan (1959), South Korea (1988) and Taiwan (1956) researches found no evidence of a fall in foreign investment or economic competitiveness.

Positive aspects of introducing a minimum wage?

  1. To reduce poverty: To help reduce poverty for the bottom 20% of households in Singapore, a binding minimum wage set above the market wage would lift incomes. The lifting of incomes should also reduce the level of income inequality for low income households.
  2. Taxes and Benefits: If workers begin to earn higher wages then tax receipts should increase. At the same time the level of financial support for such families will likely fall as they become more self sufficient. This could also help reduce government spending. Both of these effect will likely have a positive impact on the government budget.
  3. The effect on worker productivity: Some economists believe that the increased wage might improve labour productivity. Workers may respond to their higher wage rate by working harder, possibly as a result of worrying about losing their job now that the increased wage rate has made it a more ‘sought after’ job. Employers may force through productivity improvements. Some workers will work shorter hours and achieve a greater work life balance and hopefully be more productive during these hours at work.

Workers…. (count 7) fixing the road outside my street this week - Credit (me)

Market interventions are obvouisly not the only way to improve the incomes of low income households. Singapore currently does many small things to improve the quality of life for low income households. In my opinion in the long run the economy needs to think of other ways to increase incomes of low income households so that Singapore holds the value of social cohesion and does not become a infamous country of unequal incomes and  extremes of wealth and poverty.

  • Subsidized Housing and Grants for first home buyers – HDB Scheme
  • Free education from Kindergarten to Secondary School.
  • Subsidized health care
  • Various financial assistance schemes including the Workfare Income Supplement

Resources and Background :

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