Minimum wages and inflation

by Greg Jericho and Jim Stanford

New research from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute has revealed how rises in the minimum wage have almost no impact on inflation and given the collapse in the value of the minimum wage in real terms over the past 2 years, a 7% increase is a necessary recompense for Australia’s lowest paid workers.

Each year the Fair Work Commission conducts the Annual Wage Review (AWR) which determines the national minimum and award wages. And each year it is met with a chorus of cries from business groups, conservative politicians and commentators that Australia’s economy will surely break should the minimum wage be raised too much.

Over the past two years however, the minimum wage has risen by less than inflation, causing a significant decline in the real purchasing power of millions of workers covered by the Modern Award system. This marks the first time in a quarter-century that the minimum wage has had a deflationary impact on the economy (that is, increased by less than the inflation rate) over successive years.

Despite this fall, once again, submissions from business groups to this year’s AWR have called for rises below inflation, and have cited concerns about a wage-price spiral as justification for advocating a further erosion of low-paid worker’s living standards.

But research by Greg Jericho and Jim Stanford shows that minimum wage increases over the past 25 years have had little to no impact on inflation at all. It also demonstrates that a 1% increase in the minimum wage and all Modern Award wages – even if completely passed through into higher prices – would result in a virtually undetectable 0.06% increase in economy-wide prices. So small is this that a mere 0.2% fall in profits would be enough to cancel any impact on prices at all.

The research reveals that the call from the Australian Council of Trade Unions for a 7% increase in the national minimum wage would make up a portion (but not all) of the real wage losses, workers have experienced in the past two years. Even if fully passed on in higher prices, with no reduction in current record-high business profits, a 7% minimum wage hike would at most translate into an increase of just 0.4% in economy-wide prices.

Alternatively, that 0.4% rise could be offset by just a 1.4% reduction in total corporate profits.

With inflation passing its peak, there is no cause for concern that a minimum wage rise of 7% (equal to the annual rate to the March quarter) would add fuel to the inflation fire.

This reinforces recent research by the Centre for Future Work that profit margins are presently at record highs in Australia, because companies have increased prices since the pandemic far more than their own input costs. This gives companies ample cushion to absorb the cost of higher minimum wages, with no impact on prices at all.

In sum, the impact of minimum wage increases on average prices is thus little more than a rounding error. But for the 20% of employees who earn either the national minimum wage or wages set under Modern Awards, a strong minimum wage increase will be vital. It will ensure that the lowest paid, who have already been most hurt by inflation, are not forced to suffer more due to an inflationary upsurge that was ultimately spurred by higher profits, not wages.

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