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Opportunity as social justice

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Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros

Interim president Adly Mansour gave an excellent interview on state TV Saturday. He was very frank and clear about major challenges Egypt faces. A high priority for him is the implementation of the law on minimum and maximum wages.

Setting a minimum wage is the government trying to guarantee “bread”. This is the minimum level at which an employee should get paid for their workplace contribution and/or on which a society decides a worker can afford to live a decent life.

Placing a maximum on how much anyone can be paid gets labeled as “social justice”. The law would place this at 35 times the minimum wage, although some have advocated a multiple of 15 times to achieve social justice.

But is that really what social justice means? Does a worker or any Egyptian really feel that society is just, that it is fair, if some arbitrarily set number dictates the ratio of pay for the highest and lowest income earners?

As an Egyptian, I would feel that my society was more just if opportunity was more equal for all Egyptians, particularly for children. The question for me is whether fixing the wage ratio at 15 or 35 times would help to equalise opportunity.

Earning higher salaries does afford many richer Egyptians the ability to buy opportunity for themselves and for their children. Perhaps that should be the focus and not the wage ratio.

Children living in households with higher wages attend better schools and have higher quality tutoring. Better nutrition early in life leads to better learning and ultimately better incomes for that next generation. Better life chances are created with more resources earlier in life.

Social justice might be better served through an equality of opportunity, for all children, from all households. Rather than cutting the income of the highest earners, maybe it would be better to add an additional tax to those earning above a certain level to finance efficient programs investing in early life nutrition and education, and ultimately giving children a better chance in life.

Of course this alone would not create social justice. Free education has not yet been enough to equalise opportunity. Opportunities would have to start to be more merit based and objectively screened rather than connected to personal relationships and family reputations.

What is plain is that there is a strong demand for more social justice. The new law on the minimum and maximum wages will try to create some by fixing the ratio between the highest and lowest wage earners. I am not sure that is what most Egyptians think of when they say they want social justice.

About the author

Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros

  • sam enslow

    The wage levels in government are important, a 18X for highest to lowest would be about right. However, to that must be added a syatem of civil service examinations upon which hiring and promotions are based without all that other garbahe attached (social status, family connections, religion, bribes, etc).Each job in government must de described and given a grade level that determines the salary.
    The main problem in Egypt is that the number of people working in the government must be cut dramatically and private sector jobs increased. Everyone knows there are too many people, often well paid, who have jobs in givernment with no work attached. Also, government jobs do not produce money. Mostly the produce pieces of paper that prevent the real economy from growing.
    As it now stands the people serve the government. This must be reversed. A simple matter that one should be able to handle on the way to work in Egypt takes three days and visits to several offices – especially if your arrival at a government office interrupts the government employee’s breakfast or tea or if no sweet is offered. Concepts of management/customer service are lacking in most government offices. There is no concept of “making the job easier” for the public to use these services.
    I once asked why there were so many illegal buildings being built, for example. I was told it is impossible to build one legally. To build you must pay – both government officials and local “mafias”.

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