India has competitive advantage over China in executive pay: survey

Gaping pay differentials across the spectrum of job levels reflect workforce imbalances and pressure for talent in the Asia Pacific region.

However, depending on location, skilled labour at low cost is available to potential employers, according to new research by professional services company Towers Watson.

The Asia Pacific section of Towers Watson's 2013-2014 Global 50 Remuneration Planning Report shows a widening disparity in pay levels particularly between the middle management and CEO in 13 of the Asia Pacific's key developed and developing economies.

The findings show where in the region senior executive talent shortage is most acute and also the competitiveness of pay amongst rival economies – from production worker to top management.

At the lower end of the job level Asia Pacific's developed economies predictably have the highest pay levels - Australia entry pay level is eight to 11 times more than China, the Philippines and Indonesia, and 15 times that of Vietnam.

Australia also pays discernibly higher than Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong through to middle management, after which the gap narrows.

Singapore leads at C-suite level
Singapore's pay levels at senior management outstrip those of Japan and, more so, Hong Kong. In fact, across the board, remuneration levels in Singapore exceed those of Hong Kong – by 14 per cent at senior executive level to 34 per cent for top management.  

''Growth in private banking in Singapore and its development – or regeneration – as a regional hub for international companies has drawn a lot of high-level talent to the city and that's reflected in the C-suite compensation,'' says Sambhav Rakyan, data services practice leader, Asia Pacific at Towers Watson.

''That said, we're looking at pre-tax remuneration in this survey – and, when that's taken into account, Hong Kong's attractive tax rates do go some way towards offsetting the differential.''  

The cities have similar-sized labour populations, while Towers Watson forecasts average salary increases in both centres to be 4.5 per cent this year.

However, Hong Kong's top marginal tax rate on personal income is more favourable at 15 per cent, compared to Singapore's 20 per cent.

Pay levels in China lag those of Hong Kong across most of the job categories, but at senior management level – there is convergence. At top management, remuneration is 11 per cent more in China at US $215,000 than Hong Kong; $193,000, according to the Towers Watson report.

Pay for senior management has risen in China over the past few years because of a shortage of talent at this management level. It means that top-level pay in China is comparable to that elsewhere in the world.

Opportunities in India
More interestingly, however, is the comparison between China and India. Striking differences exist between the region's two biggest labour forces. Based on the survey findings, labour costs for senior executives and top management is lower in India. At senior level, executive pay in China is more than twice that in India ($94,000).

For international companies, the sharp fall in the value of the Indian rupee against the US dollar in 2013 contributed to reducing labour costs in India. It contrasts with China where the renminbi appreciated against the dollar.

''The large influx of Indian returnees following the global financial crisis helped India to get more CEO talent,'' says Clare Muhiudeen, managing director, talent and rewards, Asia Pacific at Towers Watson. ''But with higher rates of inflation in India than in China, that gap will narrow. We expect average salary increases in India to be higher than China's 8.5 per cent. That said, India clearly has more affordable labour than China and that's the way it'll be for the foreseeable future.''

Other fundamentals have a bearing too. China's labour force is expected to fall for the second year running to 795 million in 2014 from 798 million in 2013, while unemployment is forecast to be 6.1 per cent (6.4 per cent in 2013).

However, in India, while unemployment is expected to fall to 8.4 per cent from 8.8 per cent in 2013, it remains well above that of China. Meanwhile its work force is set to reach 492 million this year, up from 487 million in 2013.

''The net addition to the working population is reflected in India's abundant entry level talent. In people-intensive sectors like technology and retail, the entry level wages are stagnant. Adjusted for inflation, they may actually be reducing every year'' says Subeer Bakshi, Towers Watson director, India, for talent and rewards. Flat wages at the entry level and rising wages at senior levels are leading to considerable inequity and employers are under significant pressure to provide fast and vertical career growth in a moribund market.