A study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the ifo Institute in Munich demonstrates that the decline in collective bargaining is the number one factor in rising wage inequality in Germany. While wages have increased in the upper 20 percent of workers since the mid-90s, they decreased in the bottom 20 percent. This development is the result of a 40+ percent drop in the number of companies and employers bound by collective wage agreements. By contrast, stronger international trade is a significantly smaller factor at just 15 percent.
The real wages of Germany’s high earners in the top 20-percent bracket have increased by 2.5 percent (adjusted for inflation) since the mid-1990s. At the same time, wage levels sank by 2 percent in the lowest 20 percent. Although wage inequality in Germany remains lower than the OECD average, it rose faster in the last two decades than in the USA and Great Britain, for example.
During that same period of time, the percentage of companies with collective wage agreements declined from 60 to 35 percent. Likewise, the share of employees covered by a collective wage agreement dropped from 82 to 62 percent. This decline is the strongest driver for rising wage inequality. The study estimates that the share of collective bargaining agreements has shrunk to around 43 percent.
Export orientation increases employee wage levels
Growing global trade has proven to be a significantly smaller driver for wage inequality compared to the decline of collective bargaining. Its share is estimated at just over 15 percent, which the study uses to explain the differences in wage structure in particular between companies that are domestically and internationally active. By the mid-1990s, export-oriented businesses already paid gross wages that averaged 11 percent higher than companies with an exclusively domestic market. This difference has continued to grow and averaged 15 percent in 2010.
When evaluating the "decline in collective bargaining" factor, the study's authors point out the changing composition of Germany’s workforce.
It is certainly plausible that wage flexibility has enabled the creation of new jobs in the low-wage sector in particular. According to estimates by the German Federal Statistical Office, 20.6 percent of workers were employed in the low-wage sector in 2010 compared to 18.7 in 2006.
Dilemma between job creation and wage inequality
For Aart De Geus, Chairman and CEO of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, finding a balance between employment and distribution-policy objectives is essential: