The minimum wage in Georgia is stuck in the 90s

Georgia has come a long way since the 1990s, a decade marked by civil war, political instability and a faltering economy. But there is one area where the country is literally stuck in the distant past: the minimum wage.

The minimum wage in Georgia's private sector was last updated in 1999 and is currently ₾20 ($7.50) per month. This makes it one of the lowest monthly minimum wages in the world – about enough to buy a few liters of milk.

Despite widespread popular support for raising the minimum wage, several governments have preferred to leave the decision to the market. This is both a cruel neglect of the state's obligations to its people and a blatant violation of international human rights law. It is long past time to deal with this.

Georgia's labor practices, including the minimum wage and other socio-economic measures, will come under scrutiny in Geneva during the week of March 4. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will begin reviewing Georgia's compliance with one of the key UN treaties, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The convention states that everyone has the right to “just and favorable conditions of work,” including “fair wages,” that provide “an adequate livelihood for themselves and their families.” The Committee has interpreted this provision as imposing an obligation on States to establish a minimum wage. However, they have also consistently pointed out that a mere minimum wage is not enough: it must also be linked to the cost of living, recognized in legislation and set at a level that enables workers to live a “decent life”.

Georgia currently does not meet any of these requirements. The minimum wage was set by a presidential decree rather than a law and has no mechanism to align it with the cost of living. And it goes without saying that it would not provide a “dignified life.”

To be fair, it's unlikely that anyone in Georgia actually makes ₾20 per month. The average wage in Georgia was ₾1,040 ($390) in 2022, and the “unofficial” monthly minimum wage is said to be closer to ₾350 ($130). However, unofficial minimum wages can and often are circumvented, which hurts female workers the most. For example, a 2022 study by Tbilisi State University's International School of Economics found that 11.9% of male employees and 24.6% of female employees earn less than ₾350 per month. Even more worrying is that 11.7% of women and 5.4% of men earn less than ₾250 ($94).

That's below Georgia's government-estimated subsistence level, which is the amount needed to buy enough calories to survive. Eliminating such abusive wage practices is one reason why government wage regulation is essential. “The market” alone is not enough.

Another reason is to ensure that people are paid enough to live with dignity and not just survive. For this reason, international law explicitly requires that minimum wages enable a “dignified life”.

Human Rights Law does not prescribe a magic number for an “adequate life,” as both a country's economic conditions and perceptions of comfort can vary significantly. Instead, the main issue is whether the minimum wage allows people to enjoy rights that are considered essential under international law: food, health care, water, sanitation, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc.

This means that Georgia's subsistence minimum of around ₾250 is not a sufficient basis for setting the minimum wage. It relies solely on a basket of food – and that is deeply flawed – and focuses solely on physiological survival. A human rights-compliant minimum wage must take more than just food into account.

A better approach – as recently advocated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights – is for the government to set the minimum wage based on published “living wage” estimates or to calculate its own living wage. While there are various methods for calculating living wages, most are most closely aligned with the “decent living” requirements defined in international human rights law.

Current living wage estimates for Georgia include: ₾1,272 ($480) per month (2021 estimate from Solidarity Network, a Georgian trade union); ₾1,706 ($640) per month (2022 estimate from the Wage Indicator Foundation) and ₾2,371 ($890) per month (2021 estimate from the Clean Clothes Campaign, a coalition of non-governmental groups and garment industry unions).

Whatever Georgia ultimately decides, one thing is clear: the 1990s are over, and with it the era of a £20 minimum wage. The UN Committee should remind Georgia of its obligations and provide a roadmap on how to set, in consultation with independent workers' unions, a minimum wage that takes into account the fundamental human rights of Georgians and guarantees an adequate standard of living.