Struggling to survive on Minimum Wage

Of 195 countries on this planet, Colombia ranks in the bottom 10 (#8) for worst pay inequality and roughly 33% of the population (16,000,000 Colombians) live in poverty conditions¹. 

In fact, roughly 4,000,000 Colombians – almost double the population of Barranquilla, live in extreme poverty² – defined as living with income under 4000 pesos a day ($1.25). In other words, no roof, very little food and no access to health-care or social programs of any nature.

In 2007, Andres Felipe Solano, a journalist and writer, accepted the challenge of living in the city of Medellin on the basic salary. His experience not only showed how hard this Colombian reality is, but is now a reference that reflects how exactly many Colombians live on a minimum wage, and implications for the health and well-being of citizens in their daily lives.

At the beginning of this year, the Colombian government increased the basic salary by only 7% to $689,454 COP. Of course, that’s not what goes in your pocket. Indeed, the government will still need to take its cut in taxes and then you’ll also lose some to health insurance and pension. In the end, depending on your work situation, you’ll end up with no more than $550,000 in your pocket.

According to Alfonso Lopez Lara, an employment lawyer and human rights specialist, this new increase doesn’t match inflation, the basic cost of food, or current rental rates. Consider the monthly expenses for a minimum-wage worker with an at-home wife and baby. A tiny, studio apartment costs no less than $200,000 COP. Basic food for two and the baby costs another $200,000 and transportation to and from work will run at least another $60,000. There’s very little left for clothes, supplies and any emergencies and there’s certainly no room for excesses, like a movie or a trip to the zoo.

Almost everyone earning a minimum wage – and this includes teachers, nurses, administrators, drivers, laborers and many other occupations – need to find other ways outside of their regular job to feed and clothe their families. It isn’t uncommon that men and women hold down two or three jobs at once.

Worse, according to statistics from DANE, almost 50% of workers in Colombia are informal, meaning they don’t have contracts and therefore aren’t covered by insurance or pension and generally make less than minimum wage.

Living in Colombia can be a paradise for foreigners, especially with the Colombian peso devaluation, but the reality for Colombian citizens who earn a minimum wage is very similar to that reality show where people have to live on a dollar a day.

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Carlos Guerra is a person who loves writing. His experience teaching Spanish to foreigners and his job as a Language and Culture Facilitator for the Peace Corps was his motivation to start writing about Barranquilla’s culture. He considers himself an ambassador of the Caribbean culture and Colombia. He loves teaching English and Spanish and enjoys learning from different cultures.