Minimum Wage or Commoning?

February 1, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

A mandatory minimum wage – 8.50 gross euros per hour – was introduced in Germany on January 1, 2015. According to many, the law represents an attempt by the political community to set limits on the business community. This way of thinking follows the pattern “state versus market”. Actually, the minimum wage intervention by lawmakers seems plausible for situations (like the one we currently live in) with clearly defined roles: entrepreneurs and owners on one side, wage earners on the other. All too often, the latter can’t make ends meet because of their low wages. All too often, one side dictates conditions. This results in a never-ending conflict between interests with periodic interventions by the social welfare state as a way to smooth out contradictions that in essence stem from a segmented world where all too often others make decisions for us. In this world, producers are not only forced to compete with each other; an active life is separated into “work” and “life.” All too often, “working to earn money” crowds out any other possible motivations for work, including the idea of “working to live.”

In such a context, the minimum wage – which is supposed to create a minimum level of equality in formal terms – can never create a feeling of social justice.

Why is that? The minimum wage law applies to people who are very unequal in personal circumstances in a formally equal way. It applies to temporary employment agencies in the construction and cleaning industries as well as to railway workers, to asparagus and strawberry farms using a lot of seasonal labor as well as small farms and craftspeople’s businesses without internal hierarchies. During a discussion with organic farmers and people working in the sector, I hear that the minimum wage, which makes sense to them “in principle”, cannot be sustained in practice, especially on family farms where agriculture is a way of life, not “a job” and where people must work as much as necessary in a given day (during harvest time, for example). But the new law is very strict and detailed, farmers tend to come up with “creative bookkeeping” to comply with it, but nobody feels good about these petty subterfuges.

The situation is complex: Someone asks during the discussion, “And what if farmers went on strike, but not for minimum wage, but for a ‘skilled craftsman’s wage’?” Another one suggests a “minimum wage per day”? Would that be a pattern, with no upper limit on the number of hours worked per day? Isn’t this the same as just switching from an hourly to a daily rate? The actual living and working situations of the people who participate in our discussion vary immensely. The way they are affected by the minimum wage law varies as well. Yet everyone agrees on one thing: Such an approach has no room for a simple idea such as “working is enjoyable.” Reflecting on his own situation, one middle-aged man who has spent decades working toward different concepts of work and life reports how he observed himself starting to think about whether a farm worker “was productive enough for his hourly wage” – a thought he had never had before. The man lost sight of the idea of work as something integral to one’s life and even enjoyable. In such a context, having a chat on the farm loses its innocence and becomes potentially an issue to be sanctioned. The new setup changes everything; it highlights in a somehow tragic way that “clocking hours doesn’t really go with agriculture.” Similar dynamics apply to many other occupations – scientist and artist, artisan and mountain guide, geriatric nurse and physician. The list is endless. Counting and care don’t go together.

So, farmers and other sectors are experiencing how the formal equality created by a law that makes sense “in principle” generates new injustices. For example, a man who has taken early retirement may work a few hours per week on a farm on a 450 euros per month basis (in a special program according to which no taxes or contributions to the social welfare system are deducted), and in fact receive now 8.50 euros per hour gross under the new minimum wage law. Whereas, trained farmers or gardeners work 50 hours or more per week on the same farm until all the work that needs to be done is actually done and would never make 8.50 per hour. “You can’t ‘adapt creatively’ so many hours in the payroll accounting.”

“Can there be creativity in actual pay instead?” someone finally asks. The first answer comes from a communal farm in the Black Forest that has experiments with a different concept: no wages are paid, and yet everyone can live according to their abilities and needs. The basic idea of this farm is incompatible with the minimum wage approach. Instead, this farm cultivates the attitude: “Everyone makes their best effort, then we’ll have everything we need.” Formal equality is not an issue on that farm. For example, if there were two apprentices only one of whom had financial support from his parents, then “we would all decide together how to handle the situation.” As a result, it is “possible that every person gets a different amount, and still everyone agrees.” If two people have different needs and get the same amount, then one person has what s/he needs, and the other doesn’t. That would not be fair. The group succeeds with this different way of solving the problem. And their way is based on patterns of commoning, which should be made explicit so that these patterns can inform the decisions of others.

Silke Helfrich

Silke Helfrich completed her studies in adult education and Romance languages as well as sociology with a focus on economics. She works as a freelance author, researcher and widely sought-after speaker. Silke is also cofounder of the Commons-Institut e.V. and the Commons Strategies Group as well as co-initiator of the Netzwerk Ökonomischer Wandel (NOW). Her most recent publication, co-written with David Bollier, is the book Free, Fair and Alive. The Insurgent Power of the Commons, transcript, 2019.

Tags: commoning, minimum wage, new economy, Social justice, the commons