Two weeks ago, thousands of American fast food workers went on a strike in 130 cities around the country. They were asking for an increase of the federal minimum wage because the money they are making now (a yearly salary of $14,500 for those ‘lucky’ ones who can work full-time hours for 50 weeks a year, without benefits), doesn’t allow them to provide for themselves nor their families. There are 2.7 million Americans living like that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012 data).
At $7.25, the federal minimum in the U.S. hasn’t been raised for the last five years. President Obama supports the raise, but the issue has tons of implications, both political and economic, and different depending on the states. Still, either when calculated as a percentage of the country’s median wage or when adjusted for currencies’ different levels of purchasing power, the federal minimum is lower than in most Western European countries, according to data from the International Labor Organization and OECD.
Of the 28 European Union countries, 21 have minimum wages. The most generous ones are Luxembourg ($2,579 gross per month) and Belgium ($2,065). Berlin is promising $11.70 gross per hour. Other countries like Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Italy do not have any minimum legal standard. Scandinavian countries usually have higher coverage thanks to collective wage deals, and smaller low wage sectors.
In many countries the economic crisis has hit so hard that their citizens are even struggling to get a job that pays below the minimum. In Spain, budget cuts have reduced services ranging from hospital care to street cleaning and some workers are being offered half of the wages than before the crisis. The minimum wage was frozen in December 2011 and today it is one of the lowest in the Union ($888 dollars a month in 14 pays), around half of Germany’s.
Notwithstanding the safety net is still different on both sides of the Atlantic: a worker in the EU can also benefit from free or low-cost health insurance, education, and childcare. He will also get paid vacations, something extremely rare for a minimum wage worker in the U.S.