Can we Measure WageIndicator?

How to Measure Social Impact? 

By Paul de Beer, University of Amsterdam/AIAS director, WageIndicator Foundation board chair

Its fifteenth anniversary is an excellent occasion to reflect on the societal impact of WageIndicator. What have fifteen years of WageIndicator contributed to the improvement of wages, working conditions and the social dialogue between management and workers? An honest answer to this question is:  ‘we only know bits and pieces’. This is simply so because it is very difficult to measure societal impact.

A Development Full of Surprises

Of course, we can give a range of figures. These are impressive. I refer to the excellent analyses by our SEO-specialist  Irene van Beveren and our software developer Huub Bouma, in the Conference Reader. Here also special mention must be made of the articles on Minimum Wages and the one on Labor Law, by Khushi Mehta and Biju Varkkey and by Iftikhar Ahmad respectively. The Reader itself gives a pretty impressive overview of the continuous development over these past fifteen years – and the surprises it brought!  Who would for example have surmised only ten years ago that the two most popular, that is to say, most frequently visited web pages and consulted topics worldwide today are Minimum Wages and Labor Law? We would have of course expected those pages to be the Salary Checks: not so.

The fact that WageIndicator today can make authoritative statements about labor markets on a global level tells you something about its outreach and about its unique approach: it is through and through interactive.  WageIndicator’s eyes and ears are wide open to pick up signals from the societies in which it works. Questions that urgently need answers, such as apparently the right to a Minimum Wage and how much money that is,  WageIndicator is quick to respond to. When, subsequently, it appears that people don’t know about their other labor rights either, next to Minimum Wage, then again WageIndicator tries to bring them their national labor law in a concise and easy to understand, truthful manner.

Interactivity is Key

Interactivity is at the core of the WageIndicator approach. That is the most basic fact about its societal relevance and impact. And when I  look around me I can see that this impact is truly global indeed. WageIndicator today is a mini-multinational which maps problems at the work places of millions and millions of individuals in over 80 countries from all continents. This basic fact alone tells us that its upgraded message: ‘share and compare wages and labor law’, is found to be relevant in all those workplaces and in all those countries and societies, whatever their cultural differences may be.

Another proof of its success is that such a large group of people, both individually and on behalf of their organization, in so many countries have been contributing to its maintenance and further development. They would never have done this if they weren’t convinced of its contribution to the social development in their country.

Nevertheless, many websites, huge numbers of visitors and a community of active contributors are not the ultimate goals of WageIndicator. These are merely means to achieve a more ambitious goal, which is to improve wages and working conditions and to create a constructive social dialogue between workers and employers all over the world. To what extent have we succeeded in bringing this goal nearer in the past fifteen years? This is the question which I, unfortunately, cannot answer to my satisfaction yet.


What We do Not Know Yet

We do not know where precisely and how successfully workers have used the information from WageIndicator to strengthen their bargaining power vis-à-vis their employer – though we have very nice and well documented examples, such as from the trade union KSBSI in Indonesia which our Gajimu-team partners with. Notwithstanding such success stories, overall we do not know how many union officials have used the information on the prevailing wages in their occupation or industry while negotiating with employers. We do not yet know to what extent the information that we have collected on labor law and collective bargaining agreements has increased compliance with rules and regulations and has contributed to the improvement of existing laws and collective agreements. An interesting question also, is whether more transparency has led to a convergence of wages and working conditions within sectors and countries because employers use this information as a benchmark to set their wage rates. And if some kind of convergence has indeed occurred, was it upward convergence – what we  would hope for -  or has perhaps a trend downward set in here or there, triggering a race to the bottom?

Yet, what we do know is that the very recent idea to use our new CBA-database to facilitate the collective bargaining process in a playful Lego-block manner has potential. Is has the potential of stopping the global downward trend in trade union effectiveness. In this respect I highly recommend the contribution of Daniela Ceccon and the trade union representatives from Guatemala and Colombia with whom she only one month ago pioneered this Lego-play with collective agreements – on which they report during this Conference. 

Surviving the Recession

During half of its lifetime, the adolescent WageIndicator has had to survive in labor markets that are subject to a recession – lasting for seven years now. Surely the impact of this truly global downward pressure on wages and working conditions dwarf efforts of small players, of which WageIndicator is only one. But it kept and keeps on going, seeking alliances with like-minded parties. These are found not only amongst trade unions, but also amongst employers and their associations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The successful social dialogue initiatives, combined with fact-finding and topical debates in two dozen countries by now, is proof of the fact that our efforts matter, albeit in a small way. And in making these efforts, time and again WageIndicator opens up new perspectives. I just add still to the issues already mentioned, the recent pioneering initiative to come up with a viable methodology for the calculation of comparable living wages throughout all national labor markets, by combining WageIndicator online infrastructure and databases with unorthodox statistical thinking and testing. In this respect I refer to the dedicated workshop during this Conference. This new focus fits into the widest possible concept of Wages in Context, whereby all levels of income, from poverty lines through living wages up to the highest actual market wages, make up the context from which individual earnings derive their meaning and direction.

Meaningful Change from the Grassroots

Here, in small-scale grassroots initiatives, often lies the germ of real and meaningful change. For a while they seem to be rather powerless, while they are nevertheless gaining ground – under the radar so to speak. Until, mature, and in combination with other initiatives tried and tested elsewhere, they realize their potential in creating a more equitable society.

I am proud to be part of this global initiative and wish all of us lots of stamina and sustainable outcomes in the continuation of this process over the next decade!