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“Lack of independence”, “dogmatic position”... Why is the Group of Experts on the SMIC so criticized?

It is a committee relatively unknown to the general public, and yet it weighs heavily in one of the key economic decisions of governments: the setting of the minimum wage.

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“Lack of independence”, “dogmatic position”... Why is the Group of Experts on the SMIC so criticized?

It is a committee relatively unknown to the general public, and yet it weighs heavily in one of the key economic decisions of governments: the setting of the minimum wage. Like every year since 2009, the Group of experts on the minimum wage is submitting its annual report to the executive at the end of November, expected this Thursday, in which it pronounces on the evolution of the interprofessional minimum wage for growth. on January 1st. Since its creation fifteen years ago, in December 2008, at the initiative of Nicolas Sarkozy, it has continued to be criticized by the unions, and is regularly the subject of political offensives. Even recently, at the end of the social conference convened by Emmanuel Macron in mid-October, CGT number one Sophie Binet attacked this body. “We don’t need a committee of experts, if it’s always to say that we don’t need any help,” she said.

This is the main criticism leveled at him. Never, since its creation, has this committee of experts, whose composition changes every four years, recommended a “boost” for the minimum wage. A possibility of revaluation at the discretion of the government, which is in addition to the double automatic indexation mechanism provided for by law. “What we criticize the group of experts is the rather dogmatic position that it has held since its creation,” explains Karen Gournay, confederal secretary of Force Ouvrière (FO), in charge of collective bargaining. Its reports are therefore quite similar from year to year, since a boost to the minimum wage is never recognized as being a solution to the decline in purchasing power or the increase in poverty.

“The fact that it is systematic, that there has never been a single exception, that raises questions,” adds labor economist Christine Erhel, professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM). We could have imagined that during the Covid period there would be specific reflection. A position that Gilbert Cet, the president of the committee of experts, staunchly defends. “The group's main concern is to reduce poverty. The minimum wage is a bad tool for this. A boost to the minimum wage could, on the contrary, increase poverty,” says the professor at NEOMA Business School, recently appointed president of the Retirement Orientation Council (COR).

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Behind this argument hides a certain vision of the economy, considered too liberal by the critics of the group of experts. “These are neo-liberal economists, who think that unemployment is due to salaries that are too high, and that we must lower the minimum wage to boost the employment of the unskilled,” says Henri Sterdyniak, economist at the Observatory. French Economic Outlook (OFCE) and co-founder of the association Les Économistes atterrés. Economic positions which, moreover, are considered too close to those of the government by the unions, leading some to accuse the group of experts of “lacking independence”. “Do you have to be a Melenchonist to have a qualified point of view on the minimum wage? I don’t think so,” replies Gilbert Cet, while emphasizing that “a sociologist (Julien Damon, Editor’s note) is one of the five experts.”

Beyond the allegiance of economists, it is the very principle of a committee composed exclusively of experts which is called into question by some. The unions, in particular, are demanding to be more widely associated with its work, and not to be, as today, simply consulted. “We have always found it very disappointing that the practitioners that we are, through social dialogue and our status as employee representatives, are not part of the group of experts,” regrets trade unionist Pierre Jardon, responsible for social dialogue at the within the CFTC.

For the president of the group of experts Gilbert Cet, “the unions are right to say that their role must be more important, but they must carry the ambition of this statement loud and clear, not want things half-heartedly” . “The social partners should be fully responsible for the evolution of the minimum wage. Here, as on many subjects, rules of law unfortunately replace the role of collective negotiation in France,” laments the economist. A roundabout way of calling into question the current mechanisms for automatic indexation of the minimum wage to inflation. A proposal regularly made in the reports of the group of experts, to which the unions are head-on opposed.

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In any case, the debates on the minimum wage go beyond the simple criticisms addressed to the group of experts. “We can criticize the government for only taking into account the opinion of this committee of experts,” points out Karen Gournay, from FO. “We keep saying that the minimum wage is not just a matter for experts. It is too easy for the government to absolve itself of its responsibility in relation to the minimum wage by relying solely on the report of the group of experts,” also believes Pierre Jardon, of the CFTC. On this point, economist Christine Erhel joins the unions. “What is problematic is the initial idea, that is to say that the government is trying to depoliticize a fundamentally political issue.”

Also a major labor specialist, economist Jérôme Gautié is also in favor of an overhaul of this group of experts. For the professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France could take inspiration from the British “Low pay commission”, “a commission in which there are not only members of the academic world and the administration, but which includes representatives from the world of business and work, and which has a broader field of expertise on low wages.

A description which is close to the first drafts of the “High remuneration council”. Announced by Élisabeth Borne at the end of the social conference in mid-October, this new body, the date of installation of which is not yet known, should particularly focus on the question of the evolution of wages. And if its composition is not defined, initial reports indicate that it could bring together representatives of trade union and employer organizations, as well as statistics administrations (Insee, Dares, Drees), or even experts. If certain unions, such as the CGT, are demanding that this high council purely and simply replace the group of experts on the minimum wage, this does not seem to be the executive's project. For Gilbert Cet, "the Prime Minister's remarks during the social conference were very clear: the future High Council for Remuneration in no way calls into question the composition, the work, the vocation of the group of experts on the minimum wage."

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