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Wage labour is the socioeconomic relationship between a worker and an employer in which the worker sells their labour under a contract (employment), and the employer buys it, often in a labour market.[1][2] In exchange for the wages paid, the products of the labour become the property of the employer. A wage labourer is a person whose primary means of income is from the selling of his or her labour in this way.

The phrase is also sometimes used to refer to the labour done for an employer in exchange for a wage, the effort expended by a worker to a task for which they are paid.[3]



The most common form of wage labour currently is a contract in which a free worker sells his labour for a predetermined time (e.g. a few months or a year), in return for a money-wage or salary.[citation needed] However, wage labour takes many other forms, and many different kinds of contracts and forms of remuneration are possible. Economic history shows a great variety of ways in which labour is traded and exchanged. The differences show up in the form of:

  • employment status: a worker could be employed full-time, part-time, or on a casual basis. He could be employed for example temporarily for a specific project only, or on a permanent basis. Part-time wage labour could combine with part-time self-employment. The worker could be employed also as an apprentice.
  • civil (legal) status: the worker could for example be a free citizen, an indentured labourer, the subject of forced labour (including some prison or army labour); a worker could be assigned by the political authorities to a task, he could be a semi-slave or a serf bound to the land who is hired out part of the time. So the labour might be performed on a more or less voluntary basis, or on a more or less involuntary basis, in which there are many gradations.
  • method of payment (remuneration or compensation). The work done could be paid "in cash" (a money-wage) or "in kind" (through receiving goods and/or services), or in the form of "piece rates" where the wage is directly dependent on how much the worker produces. In some cases, the worker might be paid in the form of credit used to buy goods and services, or in the form of stock options or shares in an enterprise.
  • method of hiring: the worker might engage in a labour-contract on his own initiative, or he might hire out his labour as part of a group. But he may also hire out his labour via an intermediary (such as an employment agency) to a third party. In this case, he is paid by the intermediary, but works for a third party which pays the intermediary. In some cases, labour is subcontracted several times, with several intermediaries. Another possibility is that the worker is assigned or posted to a job by a political authority, or that an agency hires out a worker to an enterprise together with means of production.

Critique of wage labour

The first point of criticism is on the freedom of the worker. Capitalist societies emerged from removing the alternative means of self-sustainment used previously by peasants. Historical records show that every time people had their own land to cultivate, as was the case for most of the population in pre-industrial England, colonial Kenya[4] or in colonial Australia, they didn't commit to work for an employer. In such cases, laws were promulgated to expel peasants from their lands, and to make the price of the land artificially high so that a common person would have to work an entire lifetime to buy it.

The second point of criticism is that after people have been compelled to no feasible alternative than that of wage labour, exploitation occurs. The worker is kept in a condition of mere survival, while the wealth produced by his work goes to the employer. Also, the technological progress which increases productivity is not used to reduce the work time and improve the quality of life of the worker; instead, it is used entirely to increase the profit of the employer. The employer who buys this labour power as if it were a mere commodity owns the labour process and can sell the products to make profit. On the other hand, the worker sells their creative energy and their liberty for a given period, and are alienated from their own labour, as well as its products.

Wage labour is often criticized as "wage slavery" by socialists and most anarchists.[citation needed] They see wage labour as a major, if not defining, aspect of hierarchical industrial systems. In Marxist terminology, wage labour is defined as "the mode of production where the worker sells their labour power as a commodity",[5] (and a wage labourer is one who sells their labour power.)

Opponents of capitalism compare wage labour to slavery (see wage slavery). For example, Karl Marx said "The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once for all... The [wage] labourer, on the other hand, sells his very self, and that by fractions... He [belongs] to the capitalist class; and it is for him... to find a buyer in this capitalist class."

Anarcho-capitalists, minarchist capitalists and market-anarchists see the problem differently. Many explain the existence of the wage system on a monopolist legal structure, the state, which aims to make low-wage employment and innovative forms of labor trade illegal. Without wage-enforcement, they argue, many producers would find it in everyone's best interest to have a percentage-based return system, in order to align all producers' self-interests with one another.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Deakin, Simon; Wilkinson, Frank. The Law of the Labour Market, Oxford University Press, 2005
  2. ^ Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital. Ch. What Are Wages? How Are They Determined. 1847. Also available at:
  3. ^ Sullivan, arthur; Steven M. Sheffrin (2003). Economics: Principles in action. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458: Pearson Prentice Hall. pp. 4. ISBN 0-13-063085-3. 
  4. ^ Caroline Elkins, Britain's Gulag (Pimlico, 2005), Chapter 1
  5. ^ Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital
  6. ^ Need citation

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