首先，有些人可能認為不支持最低工資不道德，因為工作那麼辛苦，拿不夠28元（要不33元）一個小時是一種侮辱。但問題是如果我們相信基本的資本主義，就會發現工資是不可能隨便定的。就拿觀塘到北角的渡輪來打比喻，前一陣子坐過一次，只有十多二十個人坐，現在船費5元，一程收入也不夠100元。大概油錢就花上幾十元，除了船長，有一個水手，如果要做到收支平衡，工資是真的上不去。 先不說對消費者的影響，即使加價也不一定能提高收入，因為從觀塘到北角坐港鐵應該會比較快，只是也比較貴。如果加船費，大概乘客就變得更少了。 要維持服務，很有可能就只好把水手除去。
Hong Kong (HK) is in its second year in experimenting its minimum wage law. It is at the moment where we are discussing if we should raise the minimum wage from 28 HK dollars (about $3.6 US) to more. Some suggests to raise to 30 or 33 HK dollars. Just a little bit background of HK: HK is a developed country in Asia with per capital GDP of about 30K US dollars. After the handover in 1997, it is now a special administration region of China. It is running under the so-called one country, two systems ideal and has a capitalist economy. The HK government is responsible for domestic affairs except diplomatic relations and national defense. Below is a rough translation of the above text targeting to the minimum wage policy in HK. However, most arguments are suitable to other countries such as the US.
First of all, many people believe that opposing minimum wage is immoral since that declines the “right” of individual earning a living wage. However, the wage in job market is controlled by supply and demand just like other markets in a capitalistic society. Take the example of a ferry service crossing the Victory Harbor in HK, the current fare is HK $5. The last time I toke the ferry it has less than 20 passengers. So the total revenue is less than HK $100. The gas probably costs more than HK $40 per trip. Besides the captain, there is one sailor on the ferry. Not only there is not much space available for salary increase, it is not even easy to maintain the service at the current rate. Ignoring the induced social cost, even raising the fare may not increase the revenue as there is a competitive subway service for crossing the harbor. It is more expensive and typically faster. So the ferry company probably will lose customers if they raise the fare. One would foresee that if the minimum wage law (MWL) continues, probably the remaining one sailor has to be laid off as well.
Such an example is everywhere in our society. Ironically, while the MWL is imposed to protect the lower class, it is exactly the same people who are affected most by the law. After a year of imposing the law, we have already found numerous complains from the poorest and the lowest skilled, who are either laid off or underemployed. From the above example, we can see that wage cannot be set arbitrarily in general. When the minimum wage of HK $28 is imposed, it basically bans every job with wage less than that amount. This is well agreed and understood by economists. And societies which have MWLs imposed in earlier years have seen low-wage jobs disappeared permanently. For example, there are no longer attendants in gas station or cleaners in MacDonald in the US. HK apparently will follow suit in near future.
Some people may feel that losing such low-level jobs has nothing to pity for. However, this job serves as stepping stones for the unskilled and the youth to prove themselves to future employers. This experience can be more persuasive than an unrelated associated degree. More importantly, the MWL essentially makes the traditional apprenticeship system illegal. No matter how well design a program in a vocational school, it cannot be matched with actual job experience. With the introduction of the MWL, industry that adopts the apprenticeship tradition, like the beauty salon industry, can no longer afford apprenticeship. If this cannot be resolved, the problem of the shortage of talent will occur in many industries in a generation or two.
Of course, the MWL is not without advantage. It forces industry to upgrade technology to reduce human workforce. In a long run, it is likely to increase the productivity of the society as a whole. However, the poor are hardly the beneficiary of this improvement. On a contrary, they are exactly the victims of this social progress. After the entire industry successfully transformed, they are no longer needed and will be laid-off permanently. The politicians who strongly support the MWL of course realize this. However, comparing to explaining this fact to the public, it is way easier to gain political capital simply supporting the law. Looking back, there are many other ways to improve productivity also. For example, the government should impose tax incentive to R&D and probably obtain the same result. And the social cost of minimum wage can even be higher than that of tax incentive. Moreover, nothing can be worse than deliberately mislead the public to achieve political gain. Therefore, despite the above advantage, I don’t think it is moral to support the MWL on this basis.
Now, if we don’t impose the law, how we can ensure that the poor can earn enough to support their living? Moreover, some argue that the MWL is needed because one working below the minimum wage may even earn less than those who receive the unemployment checks. In this regard, I believe the problem is a technical but not a fundamental one. The latter is a direct result of the lack of planning of the government tax system. None forbids the government to subsidize those who work below the minimum wage. Actually, the recently imposed government’s employment transportation allowance is a very good start. Moreover, the similar subsidies can be handled by the existing tax system and thus this shouldn’t increase the administrative cost significantly. After all, the government should continue to encourage full employment and may consider to stop unemployment benefit for those who receive it indefinitely. Alternatively, it can also consider providing unemployment benefit through food stamps just like some other foreign countries.