- Observatory: EurWORK
- Working poor,
- Labour market change,
- Published on: 05 April 2010
Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.
The overall rate of in-work poverty in Estonia is at the level of the EU25, totalling 8% in 2007. The rate is higher for women and particularly low for the youngest age group. The issue of the working poor does not receive particular attention in this country. The main measures which affect in-work poverty are tax allowance, social assistance benefits and the national minimum wage. In 2009, due to the economic recession, the minimum wage did not increase and there have been cuts in state support, despite the growing number of benefit recipients and the rising unemployment rate, which suggest an increase in in-work poverty.
Definitions and aims of study
The ‘working poor’ are a section of the population that is difficult to define, not only due to a lack of specific data but also because the concept combines two levels of analysis: the working status of individuals and the wages they earn from employment (individual level), and the extent to which they have a poverty-level of income within the household context (collective level).
The aim of the comparative analytical report is fourfold:
to obtain an insight into the extent of in-work poverty in different European countries and the characteristics of those affected;
to examine policies in place to tackle the problem of people in work on low levels of income and any assessments which have been carried out into the effectiveness of such policies;
to consider the views of social partners towards the working poor;
to investigate the effect of the current economic recession on the scale of in-work poverty.
For the purpose of the study, the working poor are defined in the same way as the indicator used by the European Commission to assess and monitor in-work poverty. Therefore, the working poor are those who are employed and whose disposable income puts them at risk of poverty. The expressions ‘working poor’ and ‘in-work poverty’ are thus used interchangeably.
‘Employed’ is defined here as being in work for over half the year. ‘Risk of poverty’ refers to having an income below 60% of the national median. Income is measured in relation to the household in which a person lives and covers the income of all household members, which is shared equally among them after being adjusted for household size and composition. Accordingly, if persons are at risk of poverty, this may not be simply because they have low wages but because their wages are insufficient to maintain the income of the household in which they live. Equally, a person can earn a very low wage but not be at risk of poverty because the income of other household members is sufficient to raise the overall household income above the poverty threshold. The study covers people on low wages, or low earnings in the case of self-employed persons. Low wages, defined in an analogous way as low income – that is, below 60% of the median earnings of those in full-time employment – potentially put individuals at risk of poverty. The risk is likely to increase in the current crisis economic as companies introduce various measures to try to cut wage costs while keeping people in employment by reducing their working hours, giving them extended leave or simply cutting wages.
The characteristics of the people concerned are also important – particularly their age, with young people and, in some cases, older workers being more likely to be employed in low-paid jobs. Women are also more likely than men to be employed in low-paid jobs, even allowing for the relatively large numbers of women working part time. However, the statistics show that, if women are in work, they are on average across the European Union less likely than men to live in households with a poverty-level of income. Nonetheless, they are more likely than men to live in circumstances which put them at particular risk of poverty, such as being a lone parent in many countries. In addition, migrants are particularly vulnerable to being among the working poor, since they tend to combine various adverse characteristics, such as working in low-skilled jobs with low rates of pay and living in single-earner households.
A set of tables containing the data available at EU level on the working poor and on people with low wages was included in an annex to the questionnaire (see Annex 1 of the overview comparative analytical report). The data concerned derive from the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) for 2007, which are the latest available data and which relate to the position in 2006. The national correspondents were asked to comment on the table findings for their country and to supplement the data included with data from national sources where possible and, where these help, to interpret the situation or to add to the information included in the tables. The EU-SILC tables, for example, do not cover the position of migrant workers. The correspondents were also asked to specify the source of any additional data and the definitions used where these differ from those on which the table is based.
1. Scale and nature of in-work poverty
1.1 Please comment on the figures for the working poor for your country shown in the attached tables and what they indicate about the scale and nature of this. Please refer to any additional data available from national sources or any studies which have been undertaken if these provide additional information in this regard and help to give an insight into the issue.
The overall risk of poverty in Estonia stands at 20%, which is significantly above the EU average of 15% in 2007 for the 25 EU Member States prior to enlargement in 2007 (EU25). This is mainly due to the considerably higher poverty risk among those out of labour market – that is, unemployed and retired persons. The rate of in-work poverty remains comparable to the EU25 average of 8% in 2007.
The gender differences regarding in-work poverty are reversed in Estonia when compared with many other European countries. While a higher proportion of men than women are at risk of poverty in the EU25, in Estonia the respective indicators are 9% for women and 6% for men (see Annex, Table A1). There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, the majority of single parents are women (Sinisaar and Tammpuu, 2009), while the poverty rates of single parents are higher: in 2007, for instance, the in-work poverty risk among this group was 27% in Estonia compared with 18% in the EU25. Secondly, women work part time considerably more often than men. According to Statistics Estonia (Statistikaamet), 11.3% of women compared with 3.6% of men worked part time in 2007, and the in-work poverty risk is higher for part-time workers (16%) than it is for full-time workers. Thirdly, the gender differences in pay are remarkably high in Estonia: while 21% of women earned less than 60% of the average earnings in 2007, just 5.8% of men did so. Moreover, the gender pay gap in Estonia is one of the widest in Europe, reaching 30% in 2007, according to Eurostat.
Another notable finding is the low level of in-work poverty among the youngest age group – that is, those aged 18–24 years – which stands at just 4% (see Annex, Table A2). This is the lowest rate across all age groups and remains below the EU25 average of 9%. Furthermore, while the total share of employees with low earnings – that is, 60% below median earnings – is 13.2%, the indicator for employees aged 18–24 years is just 7.7% compared with 43.7% in the EU25. Estonia is the only country where the proportion of young people with low earnings is lower than the share for older employees, that is those above 24 years of age. This trend holds true both in the case of men and women. This is particularly surprising given that the proportion of part-time workers in this age group stood at 13.8% in 2007, which is the highest compared with other age groups (Statistics Estonia). At the same time, the situation of young people in the labour market is also relatively good in general if compared with the EU average, although it is worse than the rest of the labour force. For instance, the unemployment rate of young people is below the EU25 average (10% in 2007, according to Eurostat).
1.2 Please comment on recent trends, giving any data or other evidence available to indicate whether the number of working poor has tended to increase or decline, between 2000 and 2007, especially considering women, young and older workers, self-employed, migrants.
According to data from the Estonian Labour Force Survey, published by Statistics Estonia, the number of working poor has decreased: more specifically, the poverty rate of employed persons dropped from 9.6% in 2000 to 7.3% in 2007. At the same time, the overall relative poverty rate has remained stable at 18%–19%. Moreover, there have been no significant changes to gender differences as the poverty rates of women remained higher throughout the period.
Data from 2004 and 2005 (Eamets, 2008) show that, in general, the patterns of in-work poverty were not different when comparing with the findings for 2007. However, the in-work poverty rate of single parents has increased from 20% in 2005 to 27% in 2007. Conversely, the in-work poverty rate of those on temporary employment contracts has decreased from 21% in 2004 to 16% in 2005 and 9% in 2007. The data for self-employed persons is available since 2004 and shows a moderate decrease – the poverty rate of self-employed people fell from 31.1% in 2004 to 29.5% in 2007.
1.3 Please outline the main findings of any research studies which have been undertaken in your country on the working poor or on low pay, more generally, and what they reveal about the characteristics of the people concerned and the jobs that they do and how these might be changing over time.
There are no studies specifically covering the working poor or low pay.
2. Policies towards the working poor
2.1 Is the issue of in-work poverty seen as an important problem in your country for the government to address? Has the issue become more or less important in the policy debate over recent years? To what extent is there seen to be a conflict between reducing the number of working poor in your country and increasing the number of people in work?
The issues of the working poor and in-work poverty have not received great attention in Estonia. The country’s policies as well as debates address either poverty in general or wage levels and the minimum wage issue in particular, without specifically addressing the poverty issue. Moreover, as a result of the economic boom, the issue of poverty has largely remained in the background. Today, in the context of the current economic recession, the focus has been on cutting back on different social benefits rather than on combating poverty.
2.2 What kinds of policy have been devised to address the working poor issue in your country? On which particular area have national policies tended to focus: labour market, social protection, fiscal policy or some combination of these policy areas? Which particular groups are policies targeted at: workers, employers, families?
The national policies aimed at improving the situation of the working poor tend to focus on fiscal measures, particularly taxation and social assistance. The main target groups are employees, with additional measures being particularly targeted at families with children.
2.3 Please describe the main measures taken for improving the income situation of the working poor. Are there any fiscal measures in place, in the form of tax credits, or in-work benefits more generally, for maintaining or raising the income of those in employment with low earnings? Are there any social transfer schemes in place to ensure that income of households exceeds a minimum level, even if the people in the household are in work? If so, please outline their main features, including whether or not they apply to the self-employed as well as employees.
In Estonia, certain fiscal measures have had an impact on employees with low earnings. Particularly noteworthy are the tax allowances in the income tax system as well as social assistance benefits. There are no in-work benefits evident.
There is a proportional income tax of 21% on workers’ earnings. However, an annual basic tax allowance amounting to EEK 27,000 (about €1,726 as at 11 March 2010) or EEK 2,250 (€144) a month is also provided for, which reduces the tax burden for low wage earners in particular. In addition, a number of supplementary allowances are provided for, including an increased basic allowance depending on the number of children. Initially, this measure was implemented from the third child (in 2001); however, this was subsequently extended to the second child in 2006 and to the first child in 2008. The allowance for the first child was abolished once again in 2009.
Social assistance benefits are means-tested and granted and renewed on a monthly basis. The total household income of the previous month is taken into account and all persons are eligible regardless of their labour market status – that is, employees and self-employed persons are eligible as well as those out of the labour market. However, local municipalities have the right to refuse payment of social assistance benefits if the adult in question is not working or studying and has refused job offers or employment service with no reasonable motive.
Social assistance benefits must be granted to the single person or household whose income, after payment of housing costs, is below the subsistence level. In 2007, the subsistence level stood at EEK 900 (€58) a month for a single person, and at EEK 1,000 (€64) a month in 2008 and 2009. For the second and each subsequent member of the household, an equivalence scale of 0.8 is used. The subsistence level refers to a certain minimum guaranteed income, which the person should have remaining after payment of housing costs. In 2006, among those receiving social assistance were a total 7,692 employed persons, corresponding to 3.4% of all beneficiaries (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2008a).
2.4 Please assess the role minimum wage legislation plays in limiting the number of working poor. Please indicate the nature of the regulation (statutory/legislative/collectively agreed/sectoral) in your country and how the minimum wage varies between different groups of worker.
Since 2002, Estonia’s annual minimum wage negotiations have been conducted on a bipartite basis between the central trade unions and employer organisations (for information on the latest annual minimum wage agreements see EE0712019I). The minimum wage requirement is valid for all Estonian employers and employees. According to Statistics Estonia, 4.8% of full-time employees – or 3.5% of men and 5.9% of women – received an income at the level of the minimum wage in 2007. This has decreased slightly from 6.4% in 2003 (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2008b).
Since 2008, the monthly minimum wage has remained at EEK 4,350 (about €278) and the hourly rate at EEK 27 (€1.73). In 2001, the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL) and the Estonian Employers’ Confederation (Eesti Tööandjate Keskliit, ETTK) concluded an agreement on the long-term principles of minimum wage negotiations establishing the increase in the minimum wage rate up to 2008 (EE0311101N). Under this agreement, the minimum wage should represent 41% of the national average wage by 2008. However, regarding the current minimum wage level, this proportion remains at about 34% of the 2008 national average wage (see also EE0712019I). In 2008, there was a relatively large increase of 21% in the minimum wage – however, average gross wages also rose at about the same pace. In 2009, the minimum wage negotiations ended with the postponement of the new agreement, and the minimum wage level remained unchanged at the level of 2008 (EE0902039I).
2.5 How effective are the policies in place for reducing the number of working poor? Please refer to any survey, research studies or policy evaluations which have been undertaken to assess the measures in place.
There are no studies specifically analysing the impact of policies in place on the number of working poor. Some studies have analysed the effect of various benefits on overall poverty reduction (Võrk and Paulus, 2007) and the progressiveness of various tax reforms (Võrk, Paulus and Poltimäe 2008).
Ongoing discussions have taken place over the size of subsistence benefits. Each year, the government has set a subsistence level which is lower than the absolute poverty level, even when relevant housing costs are included; therefore, many households may remain below the absolute poverty level despite these benefits. One of the reasons for keeping the subsistence level low is due to concerns over reducing incentives for labour force participation. The analysis by Võrk and Paulus (2006) highlighted that, while the Estonian subsistence benefit system guarantees a minimum income for households, it simultaneously creates disincentives to work for low-wage earners in certain family types. For example, in a household with two adults and two children, there is no incentive to work for the minimum wage when the other adult is inactive as the final income of the household does not increase. However, a ‘microsimulation’ analysis by Võrk and Paulus (2006) showed that this disincentive to work concerned only about 1% of employed people and 2% of inactive or unemployed people in 2004.
Elsewhere, a study shows that the additional tax allowance based on the number of children is the least cost-effective measure among family policies for reducing child poverty, unless applied only from the third child (Võrk and Paulus, 2007). Further research (Võrk, Paulus and Poltimäe, 2008) shows that the largest relative gain – measured by the percentage increase in income – from these additional tax allowances are for people in the fourth to the sixth deciles of income. This includes, for example, workers whose earnings are around the level of the average wage.
3. Attitudes of the social partners to the working poor
3.1 What is the attitude of the social partners in your country to the issue of in-work poverty? Is there any debate on the relative priority to be given to the quality of jobs and working conditions as against the quantity of jobs? What has been the impact of the present economic recession on their positions and on the actions taken towards reducing in-work poverty?
The trade union federation EAKL has explicitly stated that it is strongly opposed to the creation of large amounts of low-quality jobs at any cost. Instead, it highlights the importance of creating quality and high-productivity jobs (EE0904049Q). There seem to be no changes in this basic position in the current economic recession. In cases of extensive restructuring, the trade unions have supported the use of training as a way of managing change and increasing the employability of workers (see, for example, EE0905019I).
The issue of in-work poverty has not been as topical for employers in Estonia. The main contribution of the ETTK employer organisation to the issue of in-work poverty is the annual agreements on the national minimum wage level. In addition, a number of sectoral and occupational minimum wage agreements have been reached, which introduce higher minimum wages in the respective domain (EE0803029Q). Nevertheless, in the context of the current economic downturn, employers have shifted their focus on keeping companies sustainable rather than concentrating on the potential for in-work poverty. For example, employers are increasingly negotiating with the trade unions on agreements stipulating wage freezes and postponing the wage increases agreed on earlier in collective bargaining, with the purpose of maintaining jobs. At the same time, it should be noted that the employers continually stress the issue of the quality of the labour force – for instance, the quality of higher education, vocational education, and increasing participation in adult education. These values are included in ETTK’s manifesto for 2007–2011 (EE0702019I) and in the tripartite agreement which also included measures to use adult education to manage change (EE0905019I). Thus, employers mostly approach the issue by focusing on the quality of human capital, especially in the context of the current economic situation.
3.2 Do trade unions have explicit policy proposals for reducing the number of people on low wages? If so, please outline the main features of these. Do such proposals include complementary schemes on healthcare, pensions and family support to help increase the effective income of workers? Do trade unions see a specific role for themselves in implementing and managing such schemes? What level of importance is attached to reducing the number of working poor in relation to creating more jobs or keeping more people in employment?
In its action plan for 2008–2011, the trade union federation EAKL has proposed several measures, which contribute to reducing the number of people on low wages. These include making the minimum wage exempt from income tax, ensuring that all categories of workers are granted wage rises in parallel to the increase in productivity and increasing cost of living, and laying down the wage levels through an increasing number of extended collective agreements. In the current economic situation, the issue of unpaid or partially paid involuntary leave or reduced working time is acute in many companies, which might also contribute to the increase in the number of working poor. As a result, EAKL has called for the introduction of an insurance benefit for those on forced leave to compensate for their loss of income (EE0706019I).
To reduce in-work poverty, one of the longer-term strategies of EAKL has been to raise the national minimum wage level in annual bipartite agreements (see also 2.4 above). However, in the current economic recession, minimum wage increases have been put on hold in several cases (see, for example, EE0903029Q). Thus, in terms of wage negotiations, keeping more people in employment and maintaining jobs has gained more importance in the current economic situation.
During 2004–2006, taxation policies have also gained momentum in EAKL. For example, EAKL has applied for the increase in basic tax exemption and, in 2006, proposed raising the basic monthly tax exemption by at least EEK 500 (about €32) every year to reach the level of EEK 4,000 (€256) by 2011. Nonetheless, in 2009, the basic tax exemption remained at EEK 2,250 (€144) a month and is projected to increase to EEK 2,750 (€176) by 2011 and to EEK 3,000 (€192) by 2012, as stipulated in the Income Tax Act.
3.3 Do employers generally support measures for reducing the extent of in-work poverty? If so, indicate the principal measures they support and implement themselves such as respecting minimum wage levels, ensuring adequate basic rates of pay, paying suitable amounts for working overtime or in bonuses.
The main employer measure for reducing in-work poverty is negotiating the minimum wage level – ETTK is one party of the annual bipartite agreements on the minimum wage increase. In general, however, the employers support a somewhat conservative strategy in terms of raising minimum wage levels. They also propose to drop comparisons of the national minimum with average wage levels and to introduce instead a comparison with the national median wage (EE0702019I).
In terms of tax policies, ETTK supports an extensive reduction in the income tax rates in its manifesto for 2007–2011. Even though its main purpose here is to reduce the relatively high tax burden for workers, this also has an impact on low-income workers and could potentially reduce in-work poverty to some extent.
4. Effect of the present economic recession on in-work poverty
4.1 Is there any evidence that the number of working poor has tended to increase during the present recession (as a result of reduction in wages and/or working time)?
There is no explicit evidence on the effect of the current economic recession on levels of in-work poverty. However, the data show that there has been a decrease of 7.4% in the average wage in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the previous year. There is also an increasing number of media reports on company-level wage reduction or the introduction of forced leave or reduced working time (EE0903029Q). The largest decrease in wages during the first quarter of 2009 was in the construction sector (-10% compared to first quarter of 2008), which is a relatively high paid sector. In addition, low-paid workers are influenced by the fact that the minimum income, which has usually been increased each year did not increase in 2009, remaining at the same level.
Rising unemployment increases the number of families with only one breadwinner, who may consequently face the risk of in-work poverty. According to Statistics Estonia, the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2009 was already 11.6%, while it was only 4.2% a year before.
Of those in receipt of subsistence allowance, both the number and the proportion of employees have increased slightly. In 2007, this group made up 5.7% of all persons living in the recipient families, which was the lowest share in recent years – in the period, 2001–2006, this figure stood at between 6.3% and 6.9%. In 2008, the respective number rose once again to 6.1%, increasing further to 6.5% in the first half of 2009.
4.2 Have any surveys or studies been launched since the crisis started to assess the effect on the working poor and to monitor the numbers involved? Please give details of such surveys or studies (their objectives, the approach adopted, the institution in charge, the main findings and so on).
There have been no studies launched to assess the effect of the economic crisis on the working poor.
4.3 Have any policy measures been taken to reduce the possible effect of the recession on the working poor?
There are no specific measures to reduce the possible effects of the economic recession on the working poor. On the contrary, there have been some cuts in state support. In recent years, the principle has been to reduce the tax burden on employees by lowering the tax rate and by increasing allowances. However, in light of the economic crisis, several planned changes have been postponed. For instance, the income tax rate was supposed to be reduced further to 18% and the tax allowance raised to EEK 36,000 (€2,300) a year. However, given the current economic crisis, these plans have been postponed with the purpose of raising the state budget revenue. Furthermore, the additional tax allowances per child which were extended to the first child by 2008, were reversed in 2009, and the additional tax allowance is now granted once again from the second child. Although current legislation stipulates that it will be extended to the first child again in 2010, discussions are underway about abolishing the measure completely.
In June 2009, after heated debates in parliament, the ruling coalition decided to further increase unemployment insurance contributions (up to 4.2% since August 2009), along with value-added tax (VAT) (from 18% to 20% since 1 July 2009), excise taxes on motor fuel (about 10%–12% since 1 July 2009), excise taxes on tobacco (about 5% since 1 January 2010) and excise tax on natural gas and environmental charges (since 1 January 2010). Of these changes, increases in VAT as well as excise duties on tobacco and on natural gas influence relatively more poor households, while increases in excise duties on motor fuel have a greater impact on rich households (Võrk, Paulus and Poltimäe, 2008). Alternative proposals to increase income tax from the current rate of 21% to 26% – or even to introduce progressive tax rates, which would have impacted relatively more high wage earners – did not come into effect.
Meanwhile, expenditure on social assistance benefits has increased – that is, on means-tested social assistance benefits that partly cover housing costs also. Several municipalities have increased the provision of social services, for instance through the introduction of social work and free meals. For example, in Estonia’s capital city Tallinn, the social work programme has been extended considerably as a response to increased unemployment. In 2009, the city plans to introduce about 1,000 social workplaces (source: City of Tallinn, www.tallinnaitab.ee). In addition, the provision of free meals has been extended in Tallinn as well as in other larger cities, such as Narva in eastern Estonia.
In 2007, the extent of in-work poverty in Estonia was not alarming, standing at the EU average level. However, as the economic recession continues, it may become a significant problem as unemployment increases, while working hours and wages are reduced. Although expenditure on assistance benefits has increased, the current subsistence level only provides a very basic income, which is not enough to move households out of relative poverty. Meanwhile, other measures to tackle the problem have been somewhat weakened and the issue of in-work poverty has not been on the agenda thus far.
Eamets, R., Decent work country report – Estonia (733Kb PDF), International Labour Office Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, International Labour Organization, 2008.
Ministry of Social Affairs, Sotsiaalvaldkonna arengud 2000–2006, EV Sotsiaalministeerium, sotsiaalpoliitika info ja analüüsi osakond, Tallinn, 2008a.
Ministry of Social Affairs, Employment and working life in Estonia, Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, Labour Policy Information and Analysis Department, Tallinn, 2008b.
Sinisaar, H. and Tammpuu, P., Ühe vanemaga pered: probleemid, vajadused ja poliitikameetmed [Families with one parent: problems, needs and policy measures], Sotsiaalministeeriumi Toimetised No. 4, 2009.
Võrk, A. and Paulus, A., Eesti sotsiaaltoetuste ja maksude mõju inimeste tööjõupakkumise stiimulitele [Analysis of labour supply incentives in the Estonian tax-benefit system], PRAXIS research report, 2006.
Võrk, A. and Paulus, A., Peredele suunatud rahaliste toetuste mõju laste vaesuse leevendamisele Eestis [Impact of cash benefits on child poverty reduction in Estonia], Riigikogu Toimetised No. 15, 2007, pp. 98–105.
Võrk, A., Paulus, A. and Poltimäe, H., Maksupoliitika mõju leibkondade maksukoormuse jaotusele [Impact of taxation policy on distribution of households’ tax burden], PRAXIS Working Papers 42, 2008.
Annex: List of tables
|Total||Employed||Not employed||Unemployed||Retired||Other inactive|
Note: Figures relate to population aged 18 years and over.
Source: Statistics Estonia, 2008
|Low education (ISCED 0–2)||–||–||10|
|Medium education (ISCED 3–4)||–||–||10|
|High education (ISCED 5–6)||–||–||4|
|Single parent with dependent children||–||–||27|
|Two or more adults with dependent children||–||–||8|
|Two or more adults without dependent children||–||–||4|
|Households with dependent children||–||–||9|
|Households without dependent children||–||–||6|
|Worked full year||–||–||7|
|Worked less than a full year||–||–||12|
Notes: Figures relate to population aged 18 years and over.
ISCED = International Standard Classification of Education
Source: Statistics Estonia, 2008
|25 years and over||21.5||5.9||13.7|
Source: Statistics Estonia, 2008
Marre Karu and Kirsti Nurmela, PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies