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4 Oct 2013: Capital (Ch. 21, “Piece-wages,” 1867, Karl Marx)

Here’s a great and more accurately meritocratic measure of hard work, the idea goes, furthermore the removal of any vestige of servitude from wage labour, since one can work as hard as desired to earn more or less as feels natural to the mood of the day… except, of course, the piece-wage is determined and valued by a certain standard of output which in effect becomes a simple translation of the time-wage. In other words, it’s impossible to achieve and maintain a way of living without producing at the level (which of course takes a certain average time) determined as that necessary to satisfy basic employee (and family) needs. The form of appearance of this wage-labour disguises more the same grueling nature of the work, and as it becomes more popular with the rise of large-scale machinery it becomes more grueling as an adjunct in relatively unregulated “domestic” workplaces (e.g. women and children sewing long hours at home – I wouldn’t be surprised if this, though brought under collective roofs, is the method of pay for many garment workers today in Asia) to keep pace with the ever-accelerating factory technology. It tends to create situations whereby workers may start off each week relatively slowly and then end up scrambling in the latter days to make up for lost time and wages by harmful overwork. This system is (or was) often used in conjunction with time-wages at the same worksites, so that those who work hourly are required to stay as long as it takes piece-wage workers to complete their daily quotas without any overtime pay themselves. Just like time-wages, an increase in the intensity and magnitude of the value-determination (i.e. making more pieces, like working longer hours) tends to drive down actual earnings in the competitive race to the bottom of cost and the top of productivity. (This beside the point that the improving production processes are likely cheapening the means of subsistence, but more importantly that increased output of machines, as mentioned before, leads to a requisite pace-keeping on the part of employees both inside and outside supporting the factory business.)

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