Sunday, April 19, 2015

Korean workers’ tax burden not as bad as it seems

First published in The Korea Herald.

Going by the recent debates on tax hikes in Korea and President Park Geun-hye’s firm resolve not to place “an additional burden on the public,” it would appear that the Koreans are being taxed heavily.

Although it is true that economic growth is stagnant, and employment rates are not too rosy, a new report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has just shattered the myth that the tax burden in Korea is unusually high. 

The OECD report, Taxing Wages 2015, released on April 14, says the tax burden has increased in 23 member countries and fallen in 10 over the past five years. And guess which group Korea falls into?

That’s right, from 2010 to 2014, the tax burden in Korea has declined, even as the middle class in most other developed countries are feeling the heat.

The annual report provides unique information on the taxes paid on wages in OECD countries. It covers personal income taxes and social security contributions paid by employees; social security contributions and payroll taxes paid by employers and cash benefits paid by in-work families. 

The results enable quantitative cross-country comparisons of labor cost levels and the overall tax and benefit position of single people and families on different levels of income.

The tax and social security contribution burden is measured by the “tax wedge” ― or the percentage of employers’ labor costs taken up by taxes, minus family benefits.

Because labor is an important economic input, higher employment rates will lead to higher GDP, other things being equal. 

Yet employment has declined markedly in Korea over the past few years. These poor employment outcomes are often blamed on high taxes on labor, since taxes discourage both demand and supply, by raising labor costs for employers and lowering workers’ effective wages.

This creates a “tax wedge” between labor costs to the employer and the worker’s take-home pay.

The tax wedge, measured as a percentage of taxes and transfers paid in the share of total labor costs, is therefore a measure of the overall level of workers’ taxation.

Now let us see what the analysis of Korea states.

According to the report, Korea has the fifth-lowest tax wedge among the 34 OECD member countries. The average single worker in Korea faced a tax wedge of 21.5 percent in 2014, compared with the OECD average of 36 percent.

In Korea, employee and employer social security contributions combine to account for 79 percent of the total tax wedge, compared with 63 percent of the total OECD average tax wedge.

The tax wedge for a worker with children may be lower than for a worker on the same income without children, since many OECD countries provide benefits to families with children through cash transfers and preferential tax provisions. Korea has the eighth-lowest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children, at 19 percent, which compares with the OECD average of 26.9 percent.

Child-related benefits and tax provisions tend to reduce the tax wedge for workers with children compared with the average single worker. In Korea in 2014, this reduction ― 2.5 percentage points ― was less than for the OECD average of 9.1 percentage points.

Looking at the trend over a long period, the OECD report states that since 2009, the tax wedge for the average single worker increased by 2 percentage points in Korea. During this same period, the tax wedge for the average single worker across the OECD increased by 0.9 percentage points. In other words, while it is true that single workers without children in Korea have felt the pain of taxes most, it is not as bad as it is made out to be.

The employee net tax burden is a measure of the net tax burden on labor income borne directly by the employee. Korea had the third-lowest employee net tax burden for an average single worker at 13.4 percent in 2014, compared with the OECD average of 25.5 percent. That is, in Korea the take-home pay of an average single worker, after tax and benefits, was 86.6 percent of their gross wage.

Taking into account child-related benefits and tax provisions, the employee net tax burden for an average married worker with two children in Korea was reduced to 10.7 percent in 2014, compared with 14.8 percent for the OECD average. Which means that an average married worker with two children in Korea had a take-home pay, after tax and family benefits, of 89.3 percent of their gross wage, compared to 85.2 percent for the OECD average.

The key takeaways from this analysis is that the tax system in Korea is becoming more progressive for low-income households, especially households with children. This is obvious from the fact that the tax wedge for families with children is lower than that for single individuals without children.

Also, an increase in the tax wedge leads to an increase in companies’ labor costs. However, in Korea, there has been a decline. So clearly the corporate sector, which has been tight-fisted in raising salaries or hiring needs a rethink. It is therefore a good thing that the government is imposing additional taxes on companies who do not make use of their cash reserves.

Lastly, there is no reason why the government should be so adamant about not raising taxes. Policymakers should look beyond short-term election outcomes and concentrate on the longer-term impact of raising taxes for certain people.