Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Labor Welfare and the Law of Supply and Demand

Discussion on labor welfare and how capitalism abuses them is always a controversial issue. Some people argue that the existence of capitalism has usurped the quality of labor life, forcing them to live below standards, all for the sake of maximizing the profits. But is this claim correct? Does free market economy impose a significant burden to labor? My answer is no and we can explain this problem though the lens of the Law of Supply and Demand.

The basic economic concept that we must understand here is that whenever the supply of a product is rising but the demand is stagnant or cannot follow such supply, price tends to fall. The reason is simple, if we have a oversupply of products in the market while the demand is minimum, the seller will be pushed to reduce the products price in order to induce more buyers to purchase the products. Similar thing is happening in Indonesia when we talk about the supply of labor, especially the blue collar workers having low education level.

Consider this fact, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world in terms of population. From such a huge amount of population, how many people had the opportunity to get high education? How many industries that can absorb a huge numbers of population as their labor? Theoretically, if the number of labor intensive industries are not big enough, assuming that the amount of blue collar workers are huge, the labor salaries will be pushed down.

From the industry perspective, why bother paying the labor much as long as they can find easy replacement of the labor and to the extent that they can find many workers who are willing to work for a cheap cost in the market. Consider the example in the market for lawyers in big corporate law firms. This line of job offers a lot of compensation (of course in accordance with the level of work difficulties and intensity).

How could that happen? First, the resources for high quality lawyers are limited. Second, there is a huge competition between big law firms to get and retain the best talent. Since the demand is high while the supply is limited, we can easily conclude that the price of the product, i.e. the salary of corporate lawyers will increase substantially.

Now we turn to the main problem in this article. How could we increase the welfare of the labor? The short term solutions have already been done in Indonesia through its labor regulations. We have minimum wage laws and our labor position is quite protected in a sense that companies cannot fire their employees easily. Such policy limits the ability of the companies to find new cheap talents and will force them to invest more in the existing workers.

But such policy is not without any consequences. The fact that there are minimum wages and job protection is good for people who have secured a job. For people who have not secure a job, these so called "protections" will turn out to be problematic for them. Forcing a minimum wage might not be in line with the companies budget and they may compensate such problem by taking less workers. Furthermore, since they cannot easily fire a worker and find a replacement, they have more incentives to ensure that the current worker will stay with them, decreasing the level of taking new labors unless the companies are planning to increase their output by making new investments.

That is why we need a long term policy that will work for the future. There are two ways to affect the price of a product. We can adjust the demand side, or we can adjust the supply side. In terms of supply, it is imperative that we pursue the policy of having an effective birth control. Like it or not, birth control is very important. If we talk about mere products, we can simply put the excess products in the warehouse, but we can't do that with human.

Another thing that can be done is of course to invest more in human capital, increasing the education level of the population with a hope that this policy will reduce the number of cheap labors in the long run. I will not discuss though in this article what would be the best way to increase investment in human capital and how to finance the education costs as I already write the basic ideas here.

From the demand side, we can try to give more incentives to entrepreneurs and capital owners to invest in labor-intensive industries (at least in the short run). This brings us to the idea that the government should invest more in building infrastructure and reduce the costs of doing business in Indonesia. Through this policy, we hope that the level of demand can be increased to absorb the labors up to a level where companies are competing to get talents. As I discussed in the case of corporate lawyers, competition of getting the best talents will be beneficial for labor. But this will not happen if the education level is low and the industries scale is not big enough.

I believe that the most efficient way to improve the labor welfare is through the free market process. Government can surely help us in achieving that goal, but in order to do so, it should use the correct method and policy. Asking companies to pay more without any justification is simply a bad idea. It gives the wrong incentives and we cannot expect that such policy will actually improve the welfare of the society in the long run. Instead, we should pursue a policy that will work well with the Law of Supply and Demand. So the final question is: what will we choose?


Rayestu Tuesday, May 08, 2012 12:20:00 AM  

Very nice article, I agree completely.

One note, another way to increase labor productivity is by inducing more investments on capital. Basic labor econ says that workers productivity increases with the more capital they work with.

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