Earn what you need

A plea for unequal pay

By Wouter Hillaert

This opinion piece challenges the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ as the highest form of fair practice. Ultimately, equal pay is building on the same individualistic basic premise as the neoliberal bonus culture: it affirms each of us in our own rights and reduces fairness to merit. Equal pay makes remuneration an excuse to keep quiet about more fundamental differences. Those inequalities remain the same. As an alternative, the text proposes the principle ‘earn what you need’. It builds on the premise that some need more than others. It considers people’s whole situation and compensates for privileges and structural inequality. In small project groups, this principle can be applied to redistribute the available budget in unequal parts as an example of fair practice 2.0.

For centuries, people have been fighting for ‘equality’: equal pay for equal work. The socialists have fought for it, against the exploitation of the working class. The feminists have fought for it, to counter the over-valuation of male professions and the undervaluation of domestic work. The black movement has fought for it, against the exploitation of slavery and for equal employment opportunities.

That battle is far from over. Look at undeclared work by undocumented migrants. Look at what many female athletes earn compared to their male colleagues. Look at what Kevin De Bruyne earns as a player for the Manchester City squad: some 80,000 euros gross per day. Many other working people work a lot harder every day than Kevin but have to toil for at least three years for the same amount. “It’s not equally distributed”, we say. But what do we mean by ‘equal’?

Classically, equality has always been defined as equal money for equal work done over the same period of time. Equality implies that our counters are synchronised when standing shoulder to shoulder on the factory line or working at adjacent office desks, with the same responsibility within the organisational hierarchy. Equality is measured by the metric system of hourly wages. The cherry on the cake – in the arts, too – are our collective labour agreements, the crown jewels of many negotiations. Pay scales and minimum wages are considered acquired benefits in our production culture: ‘the same for everyone’ being the supreme good.

What does financial equality mean in a world with so much social inequality?

The same applies in the whole discussion about fair practice. Its foundation is being weighed with the same balance, on the same scales. Freelance artists should earn proportionally the same as employees covered by the collective agreement. The invisible time that artists invest in creation should be paid in the same way as the set-rate-paid hours of those who ultimately produce, programme and communicate that creative work. Value is determined by how much you get paid. For us, equality rhymes with euro. In the last analysis, fair means ‘the same as the next man or woman’.

But what good is that equal measure in a society with so much difference? What does financial equality mean in a world with so much social inequality? Equal pay does not solve the fact that people with migration backgrounds have a harder time accessing house rentals and labour markets. Equal pay does not make up for the disadvantage experienced by those born into poverty. Equal pay is no more than a half-solution for single mothers with full-time jobs. Equal pay does not make us equal at all. It just levels us as production cogs. Everyone content with the same correct cents. Keep the treadmill turning!

The idea of ‘equal pay’ is called progressive – especially in contrast to the growing bonus culture in which you are paid according to individual performance: the more money you earn for your company, the higher your personal profit. But doesn’t ‘equal pay’ ultimately rest on exactly the same individualistic thinking on which capitalism is built? It affirms each of us in our own rights, dividing justice into legitimate wedges. Once everyone has been paid fairly, all responsibility ceases. The rest is your own business: your rent, your children, your doctor’s fees, your debts. To each his wages, and then sink or swim. Equal pay makes remuneration an excuse that covers up more fundamental differences. Those inequalities remain the same.

Fair practice 2.0

Imagine a system with a completely different basic principle: ‘earn what you need’, following the example of ‘pay what you can’. It simply assumes that some people need higher incomes to make ends meet while others can get by on less. It makes unequal pay a progressive political act, which compensates for structural inequality and even privilege. It bases justice not on the actual work done, but on people’s differing situations. It understands remuneration as redistribution and extends collegiality to solidarity. Its starting point is not the individual ‘more’ but a collective ‘enough’. ‘Fair’ then becomes: not everyone the same, but everyone enough.

The fact that we find this difficult to imagine perhaps says something about the power of individualist principles of equality over collective principles of equality. We are naturally quicker to notice where we ourselves earn more than others, than in situations where others earn less than their needs require. This is how we were brought up: our own injustice is placed above the common good. What also doesn’t help here is the sky-high taboo surrounding money. It’s kind of like watching porn: you prefer to keep it to yourself. Your salary is private. Capitalism has grasped that very well.

The principle of ‘earn what you need’ starts not from the individual ‘more’, but from a collective ‘enough’.

It is possible: in a group everyone states what they would like to have or what they need from the available budget. Then the group distributes that together (unequally). My own experiences are limited to two artistic research projects with ten to fifteen people each: we divided the resources obtained according to everyone’s needs and personal situation. One person indicated that he needed 200 euros a day to get out of debt. For another, 50 euros was enough. Still others didn’t really need anything at that time. Transparency is key, it requires trust and confidentiality within the group, but it’s also possible with people one knows less well. There must be unanimity – especially with regard to the vision of money: that the available budget is a common one. Assets that belong to everyone jointly, not a set of slices belonging to each person separately.

Obviously, such talk of unequal distribution is not self-evident. Everything is involved: shame, embarrassment, guilt. That’s how we were brought up: according to the old custom that the fries on the table are divided equally, with the idea that those people who don’t have enough are somehow inadequate, and that whoever asks for more, really has to earn it.

‘Earn what you need’, with unequal wages as an effect, can reverse the eternal Matthew principle into its opposite.

‘Earn what you need’ may become more difficult once you scale it up to relationships that are larger and more structured than small one-off projects. Can you (re)distribute fixed wages in an institution according to such a principle? Can you award subsidies in that spirit as a government? Immediately a neoliberal interpretation lies in wait: redistribution according to need can also become an excellent way of crumbling a cake that is already too small. ‘Fair’ then does not become ‘everyone enough’, but ‘some just enough and the rest too little’.

At the same time, that risk is no reason to not continue experimenting with it – at least in smaller groups. ‘Earn what you need’, with unequal wages as an effect, can reverse the eternal Matthew principle into its opposite: a concern for our differences beyond placing the same amount in everyone’s wallet. Provided the right preconditions are met, ‘earn what you need’ is fair practice 2.0. Collective, inclusive, tailored, towards a new balance. Give it a try.

The Gamified Workshop Toolkit

Freely downloadable card game to use at the beginning of collective projects, especially designed for teams from different cultures, backgrounds, or personal situations to communicate and reflect on their values and needs regarding collaboration right from the get-go. It was created by Anikó Rácz, Doreen Toutikian, and Dorota Ogrodzka within the research and development project, RESHAPE.