COVID-19's Essential Workers Shake Up Minimum Wage Debate

Why are some of society's most crucial employees still fighting to get paid a fair wage?

The bitter irony of the effect of the health crisis on the world of work has begun to fuel the simmering worldwide debate about minimum wage. 
The bitter irony of the effect of the health crisis on the world of work has begun to fuel the simmering worldwide debate about minimum wage. 
Carl-Johan Karlsson

After the arrival of COVID-19, we started calling them "essential workers," as the pandemic gave long overdue recognition to those driving our buses, sweeping our floors, stocking our supermarket shelves. These are the people formerly known simply as "low-paid workers."

The bitter irony of the effect of the health crisis on the world of work, compounded by the overall disproportionate effect of the virus on poorer communities, has begun to fuel the simmering worldwide debate about minimum wage.

As the pandemic sparks a global recession, it has amplified the perennial economic dilemma of how to ensure a decent living for workers on the one hand, and protect the survival of vulnerable businesses on the other.

In places such as the U.S., a clear majority of the population is for the first time supporting a raise in the federal minimum wage to $15. Other countries, including Australia, have put scheduled minimum wage increases on hold following pushback from cash-strapped employers.

Biden and the federal 15: The first federal minimum wage was set in the U.S. in 1938. Since then, it has been raised 22 times by 12 different presidents. However, while living costs have skyrocketed there in the last decade, the minimum wage hasn't budged in 11 years. The Democratic Party did make a $15 minimum wage part of its platform ahead of the 2016 election season. And President-Elect Joe Biden has now pledged to push through the highest federal minimum wage increase in U.S. history, from its current $7.25 to $15.

• Biden's opportunity comes at a time when an unprecedented 67% of Americans surveyed (2019) expressed support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

• There are also signs that minimum wage in the U.S. is moving beyond bipartisanship, with 60% of voters in Florida recently voting for a ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 per hour by 2026. Considering Donald Trump secured more than half of the votes in the state, upwards of 1 million Florida voters cast a ballot for the president and the minimum wage increase.

• A handful of states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — have already adopted laws that will raise the minimum wage to $15 over time, and 29 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the federal level.

Arguments against: Outgoing President Donald Trump has claimed that raising the minimum wage would crush small businesses — the most common argument among skeptics. Pennsylvania assemblyman Andrew Lewis said a proposal to incrementally raise that state's minimum to $15 as part of a recovery plan would be "artificially inflating wages," and likely to have an inverse effect: job losses.

Almost 10% of workers in the European Union are living in poverty

Europe, one-size-fits-all? A similar dynamic of the federal v. state system is also playing out in the European Union. The pandemic has given new urgency to the idea of establishing the first EU-wide minimum wage framework, as lockdowns across member states have crippled some of the industries that pay minimum wages, such as tourism and hospitality.

• The idea of an EU-wide minimum wage has been floated several times in the past but has been palmed off by both governments and economists as unrealistic. What the European Commission is now considering is not a common minimum wage level, but rather a framework for standards.

• Of the EU's 27 countries, 21 already have statutory minimum wages set by national governments, but workers are often affected by inadequacy and gaps in the coverage of minimum wage protection.

• Therefore, the directive is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all figure for the whole bloc but rather a legal guarantee that workers in all states can make a decent living. Current proposals suggest that the threshold should be 60% of the median wage and 50% of the average wage.

• Six EU member states — Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Italy and Cyprus — have wages set in collective bargaining between employers and trade unions. These countries will not be forced to install statutory minimum wages but thresholds will instead be set for bargaining deals.

A group of local workers joining together for the ""Latinos for Raise the Wage"" in Miami, U.S. — Photo: TNS/ZUMA

What's behind the EU proposal? According to the Commission, almost 10% of workers in the European Union are living in poverty. It is mainly among the countries that joined in 2004 or after — such as Czech Republic, Estonia, Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia — where minimum wage levels are below average and wages are also lower in absolute terms.

• Bulgaria currently has the EU's lowest minimum wage with €312 per month, while Luxembourg has the highest, at €2,142.

• Levels of trade unions also vary widely across the 27 EU states and weak trade unions affect workers' ability to demand higher wages or affect their country's growth model.

• Low salaries and weak unions in turn creates a basis for social dumping, which is the practice of employers using cheaper labour than is usually available at their site of production or sale. They are also among the reasons for large-scale migration and population decline.

• The Commission has summarized the goal of their proposed directive to be reducing wage inequality, help sustain domestic demand, strengthen work incentives and reduce the gender pay gap. It adds that the proposal will also help protect employers that pay decent wages to workers by ensuring fair competition.

A global trend? If the EU's proposal is passed and implemented successfully, it could create a ripple effect on other countries that have already taken initial steps towards setting wage standards. Besides, the pandemic-induced exposure of the gap between the value of frontline workers and the low wages they receive could further bolster such an effort.

• More than 90% of the International Labour Organization's (ILO) 187 member states already have one or more minimum wages set through legislation or binding collective agreements.

• In the Americas and the Caribbean, there are very few exceptions, such as Suriname; and in Asia, there is no minimum wage in Singapore and Brunei. In Africa, exceptions include Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Among Arab states, no minimum wage exists in Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates.

• This doesn't mean that in every other country minimum wages cover a majority of workers or that they are regularly adjusted according to inflation. A global poll from the International Trade Union Confederation found that 84% of all respondents judged their national minimum wage to be insufficient for a decent life.

Increased flexibility: In most countries, the ILO has stated that national policy debates focus not so much on whether to have a minimum wage, but on how to make one work effectively. As the pandemic has forced governments to new levels of economic flexibility, countries are also finding more short-term solutions for the minimum wage.

• Australia's fair work commission ordered a 1.7% minimum wage raise to $19.84 per hour in June, but the move faced pushback from employers recommending a wage freeze during the pandemic. The outcome is a compromise where most workers will get a raise, but employees in the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus, including tourism and aviation, will have their wage increase delayed until February, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

• Another example comes out of the Philippines, where minimum wage, as well as micro-insurance, are offered to casual workers who have temporarily lost their livelihood during the pandemic.

• In Qatar, the government has also decided on a delayed increase. After introducing a minimum wage in 2017, the government decided in August this year to raise the minimum with 25% which will come into effect in six months.

The gig economy: However, flexibility also has a darker underbelly, as digitization and an increasingly "gig"-oriented economy allows certain companies to sidestep labor policies.

• While technology has eliminated some of the more mundane tasks, it has also created new forms of exploitation such as crowdsourcing platforms dodging minimum wage requirements by using "independent contractors' rather than employees.

• For example, job platforms such as Appen, Clickworker and Amazon"s Mechanical Turk are not subject to paying their workers the national minimum wage. They have instead been reported to sometimes pay "contractors' as little as a few cents per hour or even wages in the form of gift cards.

• According to a 2019 ILO study, two-thirds of American workers surveyed on the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform earned less than the federal minimum wage of US$7.25 per hour.

• The same study showed that only 7% of German workers surveyed on the Essen-based Clickworker platform reported earnings above the national minimum wage of €8.84 per hour.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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