The concept of the living wage which has influenced the fixation of wages, statutorily or otherwise, in all economically advanced countries is an old and well- established one, but most of the current definitions are of recent origin. The most expressive definition of the living wage is that of Justice Higgins of the Australian Commonwealth Court of Conciliation in the Harvester case. He defined the living wage as one appropriate for,
“the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilized community “.
Justice Higgins has, at other places, explained what he meant by this cryptic pronouncement. The living wage must provide not merely for absolute essentials such as food, shelter and clothing but for “a condition of frugal comfort estimated by current human standards.” He explained himself further by saying that it was a wage,
“sufficient to insure the workmen food, shelter, clothing frugal comfort, provision for evil days, etc., as well as regard for the special skill of an artisan if he is one “.
In a subsequent case he observed that, “treating marriage as the usual fate of adult men, a wage which does not allow of the matrimonial condition and the maintenance of about five persons in a home would not be treated as a living wage”.
According to the South Australian Act of 1912, the living wage means “a sum sufficient for the normal and reasonable needs of the average employee living in a locality where work under consideration is done or is to be done.”
The Queensland Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act provides that the basic wage paid to an adult male employee shall not be less than is “sufficient to maintain a well-conducted employee of average health, strength and competence and his wife and a family of three children in a fair and average standard of comfort, having regard to the conditions of living prevailing among employees in the calling in respect of which such basic wage is fixed, and provided that in fixing such basic wage the earnings of the children or wife of such employee shall not be taken into account “.
In a Tentative Budget Inquiry conducted in the United States of America in 1919 the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labour Statistics analysed the budgets with reference to three concepts, viz., (i) the pauper and poverty level, (ii) the minimum of subsistence level, and, (iii) the minimum of health and comfort level, and adopted the last for the determination of the living wage.
The Royal Commission on the Basic Wage for the Commonwealth of Australia approved of this course and proceeded through norms and budget enquiries to ascertain what the minimum of health and comfort level should be. The commission quoted with approval the description of the minimum of health and comfort level in the following terms:
“This represents a slightly higher level than that of subsistence, providing not only for the material needs of food, shelter, and body covering but also for certain comforts, such as clothing sufficient for bodily comfort, and to maintain the wearer’s instinct of self-respect and decency, some insurance against the more important misfortunes-death, disability and fire–good education for the children, some amusement, and some expenditure for self- development.”
The Minimum Wage-Fixing Machinery published by the I. L. O. has summarised these views as follows:
“In different countries estimates have been made of the amount of a living wage, but the estimates vary according to the point of view of the investigator. Estimates may be classified into at least three groups:
(1) the amount necessary for mere subsistence,
(2) the amount necessary for health and decency, and
(3) the amount necessary to provide a standard of comfort.”
It will be seen from this summary of the concepts of the living wage held in various parts of the world that there is general argument that the living wage should enable the male earlier to provide for himself and his family not merely the bare essentials of food, clothing and shelter but a measure of frugal comfort including education for the children, protection against ill-health, requirements of essential social needs, and a measure of insurance against the more important misfortunes including old age. “
Article 43 of our Constitution has also adopted as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy that: The State shall endeavour to secure, by suitable legislation or economic Organisation or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities…………….” This is the ideal to which our social welfare State has to approximate in an attempt to ameliorate the living conditions of the workers.