Chapter 1: What is a minimum wage

1.1 Definition and purpose

Minimum wages have been defined asthe minimum amount of remuneration that an employer is required to pay wage earners for the work performed during a given period, which cannot be reduced by collective agreement or an individual contract”.1

This definition refers to the binding nature of minimum wages, regardless of the method of fixing them. Minimum wages can be set by statute, decision of a competent authority, a wage board, a wage council, or by industrial or labour courts or tribunals. Minimum wages can also be set by giving the force of law to provisions of collective agreements.

The purpose of minimum wages is to protect workers against unduly low pay. They help ensure a just and equitable share of the fruits of progress to all, and a minimum living wage to all who are employed and in need of such protection. Minimum wages can also be one element of a policy to overcome poverty and reduce inequality, including those between men and women, by promoting the right to equal remuneration for work of equal value.

Minimum wage systems should not be seen or used in isolation, but should be designed in a way to supplement and reinforce other social and employment policies. Several types of measures can be used to tackle income and labour market inequality, including pro-employment policies, social transfers, and creating an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises.    

The purpose of a minimum wage, which sets a floor, should also be distinguished from collective bargaining, which can be used to set wages above an existing floor. Figure 1 shows a hypothetical wage distribution with a "minimum wage zone" and a "collective bargaining zone" which can be used to establish minimum standards and to set wages above an existing floor. 

Figure 2 illustrates that the effectiveness of minimum wages depends on many factors, including the extent to which they afford protection to all workers in an employment relationship, including women, and youth and migrant workers, regardless of their contractual arrangements, as well as all industries and occupations in the economy (coverage); whether they are set and adjusted at an adequate level that covers the needs of workers and their families, while taking into account economic factors (level); and whether employers comply with minimum wage regulations (compliance).

Figure 1. The distribution of wages (hypothetical wage distribution of a population of 56 wage-earners)

How to read this figure :
Figure 1 shows a hypothetical wage distribution of a population of 56 wage-earners before the introduction of a minimum wage. The level of wages is on the horizontal axis, and the number of wage earners is on the vertical axis.

We see the full range of market wages, including a relatively small proportion of workers with extremely low pay on the left end of the wage distribution. For example, 1 employee has a wage of 1$, 2 employees are paid 3$, while 5 employees receive wages of 8$.

The yellow circle called the “minimum wage zone” shows that a minimum wage should in principle remain targeted at the lowest-paid employees, to eliminate “unduly low pay”; the blue circle is the “collective bargaining zone” and illustrates the principle that collective bargaining can be used to set wages above an existing floor.

Figure 2. Main dimensions of effective minimum wages

1 ILO: General Survey concerning the Minimum Wage Fixing Convention, 1970 (No. 131), and the Minimum Wage Fixing Recommendation, 1970 (No. 135), Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, 2014.
2 ILO: Advances and Challenges in Labour Protection. Conditions of Work and Equality Department Policy Brief.