Wage labor

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Wage labor refers to dependent human labor for money (wages, i.e. wages ). This gainful employment can be distinguished from other forms of work such as subsistence work , housework and family work , voluntary work and slave labor . Wage labor is remunerated according to contractual regulations between employer and employee . Because of the relatively weaker negotiating position of the wage laborers ("employees") compared to the employers, legal regulations were necessary to protect the workforce, which restrict the freedom of contract with regard to employment contracts. These rules are expressed differently in different countries. In Germany they can be found v. a. in labor law and in collective bargaining law .

History of wage labor


The following information comes mainly from the lexicon of antiquity . Wage labor was already common in the Mesopotamian civilizations. Wage workers were still paid in kind here - in Greece already with money - they were mainly used in agriculture, more precisely in arable farming.

In ancient Greece, as in ancient Rome, a large part of the heavy and monotonous work - for example in fields, in mines and quarries, in shipyards, as construction workers, transport workers, as rowers, as manual laborers, etc. - weighed on the shoulders of two social groups:

  • Slaves - they were (with exceptions) viewed by their owners as sellable and unlawful objects, as mere tools for performing work
  • Wage workers - in contrast to the slaves, they were legally free, but from an economic point of view - because they did not own the means of production and land - they were forced to sell their labor to the haves

Both slaves and wage laborers were often used in large numbers. Often more than 1,000 of them worked in a mine, just as many in the fields of a single large landowner. The wage workers were mostly paid on a daily basis . In agriculture, seasonal work was common at harvest time. There was probably a certain competition between wage laborers and slaves where the even cheaper slaves could cost the wage laborers their jobs (e.g. as rowers). In Rome the wage workers, as dispossessed free people, can be identified to a large extent with the so-called proletarii . In Greece the wage laborers were mostly part of the Thetian class . In ancient times, wage laborers often included clerks, bailiffs, market guards, teachers, doctors, etc.

Modern times

After the peasant wars and the subsequent peasant liberation in parts of Europe , there was a population explosion and the emergence of modern capitalism . From the beginning of the 18th century, wage workers without ownership of the means of production increasingly arose in Europe, some of which posed a problem. So that led Baron von Stein from 1784 later in the Ruhr area a fixed wage for wage workers a. Finally an industrial proletariat was formed , and with it the social question or pauperism arose . The so-called “ labor market ” is one of the most important structural features of society in modern Europe .

This led to the emergence of the following specifically modern- western phenomena:

State population, social and employment policy:

Workforce organizations:

Further specifically modern phenomena that have arisen parallel to massive wage labor:

The social question was largely resolved during the “golden age” of capitalism in the 50s and 60s of the 20th century, but from the neo-liberal turn in the mid-70s it also celebrated a comeback in the western industrialized countries, in which polarization has been in Poor and rich progressively deepened again, as studies by the federal government ( poverty and wealth report ), the EU ( EU-SILC ,), the ILO (world social report ) and Oxfam show. While the standard of living of most people in emerging markets improved during this period, the standard of living deteriorated v. a. of the less well qualified wage workers in the traditional industries of the European and Anglo-American world. These industries have suffered a. under the ever higher quality producing competition v. a. from the Asian emerging markets, which also had high growth rates due to their demographic dividends , while secular stagnation set in in the traditional European and Anglo-American industrialized countries.

Wage labor in Marxist theory

Communist symbol for workers

The term is used in Marxism to characterize the situation of the working class : As a commodity with which it can regularly do business, it has only its own labor and no means of production . You must make a living from the sale of this work force against " wage (" wage ) contest. From the capitalist's point of view , the purchase of labor and other means of production is only profitable if more money is subsequently earned through the sale of the goods than was originally spent on labor and means of production. Since the workers have to live from the sale of their labor and the capitalist class needs a permanent supply of labor, wage contracts are concluded on average that cover the costs of reproducing labor. This goes hand in hand with the labor value theory , according to which all commodities exchange each other in relation to the socially necessary labor time that is necessary for their production. This means that only work is value-creating. The capitalist appropriates the difference between the value of labor power (wages, variable capital ), which is sold by the “free” wage workers, and the total value created, as surplus value . Machines, work materials, etc., as constant capital, according to the theory of labor values, only transfer proportionally the labor time already objectified in it. The entire profit of the capitalist class therefore results from the exploited labor.

According to Marx, this results in three dimensions of the exploitation of wage workers by the capitalists:

  • Production: The employment of wage laborers is only profitable if part of the goods produced, the surplus product , remains with the capitalists.
  • Working time: The employment of wage workers is only profitable if the wage workers not only work to produce the products they need themselves (necessary working time), but also work unpaid for the capitalists (exploitation). However, this gratuitousness is veiled in capitalism , not immediately visible, since the wages ostensibly cover the entire working time.
  • Value: The employment of wage workers is only profitable if part of the value created remains with the capitalists as surplus value.

Karl Marx describes the social situation of the workers after the victorious bourgeois revolution with the term “double free wage worker”. After gaining civil rights , workers had to offer their labor on the market and were able to freely negotiate their wages depending on market conditions. The term "doubly free wage worker" is intended to indicate the dual character of freedom wage workers are exposed to under capitalism. By the liberation from the feudal and feudal fetters the workers had indeed gained civil rights and freedoms are, however, the property "liberated" the means of production and therefore under early capitalist relations of production , forced to " wage slavery to go."

Contract work in economics

In economics , wage workers appear as employees who take up job offers from employers and enter into employment contracts with them, usually with fixed salaries. Until the introduction of the European System of National Accounts in Germany in 1999, they were still referred to as "dependent employees".

Wage work in business practice

In practical business life, the word wage labor can have another meaning: companies sometimes allow work to be done outside the company for wages. In the company's books, this is then referred to as "contracted labor" or something similar.

The contracting company hands over the material to be processed or processed to a subcontractor who carries out this work on the basis of a work contract and then receives wages. The subcontractor receives plans and / or a sample of the part to be manufactured from the client. The subcontractor then uses their own manufacturing facility, machinery, equipment, and workforce to manufacture the parts, sometimes using loan machines. The subcontractor is only liable for the quality of his work, not for material defects. Sometimes these are also bogus self-employed who receive their gross wages and then have to insure themselves and pay taxes so that the exploitation for them can take on forms that are comparable to early or high capitalism .

It is up to business administration to determine whether it is more advantageous to carry out certain work in-house or to have it carried out by a contract partner (see outsourcing ). Companies with free capacity can be better utilized by accepting wage labor.


Manufacturer X cast the plastic parts of clothespins and twisted the wires into spiral springs. He gives these individual parts and packaging material to Y (e.g. a workshop for the disabled or a correctional facility), where two symmetrical plastic parts are put into a spiral spring and these clips are then clamped onto cardboard lids and packed in cardboard boxes. X receives the finished product back, pays Y a certain wage for the work done (= wage labor) and sells the goods to his customers. Y then “made contract work” for X.


Clothing retailer A offers its customers the service of having the trouser legs, jacket sleeves, skirts, etc. shortened to the right length for a certain surcharge. If one of A's employees does not carry out this change work, A gives the goods to tailoring shop B, which carries out this (wage) work, returns the goods to A, who pays for the change work. A charges its customers for these "contract work" changes.

See also


  • Robert Castel: The Metamorphoses of the Social Question. Constance: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH 2008 ( table of contents )
  • Arne Eggebrecht / Jens Flemming / Gert Meyer / Achatz v. Müller / Alfred Oppolzer / Akoš Paulinyi / Helmuth Schneier: History of work. From ancient Egypt to the present. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1980.
  • Gunnar Heinsohn, Otto Steiger, Rolf Knieper: Human production - general population theory of the modern age. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp 1979
( Summary , from: Herz, Dietmar; Weinberger, Veronika (Hrsg.): The Lexicon of Economic Works . Düsseldorf: Verlag Wirtschaft undfinanz 2006. ISBN 3-87881-158-6 )
  • Gunnar Heinsohn, Rolf Knieper: Theory of Family Law. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp 1974
  • Andrea Komlosy : work. A global historical perspective. 13th to 21st century. Promedia, Vienna 2014, ISBN 978-3-85371-369-3 .

Web links

Wiktionary: wage labor  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Lexikon der Antike , Johannes Irmscher (ed.), Digital Library Vol. 18, Directmedia, Berlin 1999, p. 3346 (article: wage labor)
  2. Gunnar Heinsohn, Otto Steiger, Rolf Knieper: People production - general population theory of the modern age . Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp 1979
  3. Aufbruch ins revier , Hoesch 1871–1961, page 45
  4. ^ Robert Castel: The Metamorphoses of the Social Question . UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH (Konstanz) 2008 ( table of contents )
  5. Gunnar Heinsohn, Otto Steiger, Rolf Knieper: People production - general population theory of the modern age . Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp 1979
  6. Gunnar Heinsohn, Rolf Knieper: Theory of Family Law. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp 1974
  7. ^ "Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Extreme: World History of the 20th Century 1914–1991 . Munich 1998, Part Two: The Golden Age
  8. Sebastian Müller: Rise of Neoliberalism: History of a Counterrevolution. La Bohemien, December 2013 [1]
  9. Marc Röhlig: “ Poverty Report of the EU: Every twelfth German cannot afford regular meals ”, Der Tagesspiegel of May 27, 2014
  10. Report by the UN Labor Organization: ILO warns of “poverty and social exclusion” in Europe . The star from June 3, 2014
  11. Oxfam Poverty Report: One percent of the world's population has more than any other ... combined . The time of January 19, 2015
  12. Marjorie Wiki: Dual Character
  13. http://www.linksnet.de/de/artikel/28008
  14. http://www.woz.ch/1334/neoliberalismus/die-rueckkehr-der-leibeigenschaft : “And that increasingly regular employees are being replaced by workers with works contracts - by the self-employed, who have to pay their social security contributions themselves, have no right to paid Have vacation or wage replacement in the event of illness, sometimes not even have health insurance, have no co-determination rights and not even the minimum wages negotiated in some industries apply. On the basis of such works contracts, Eastern European butchers work in German meat factories (for an hourly wage of three euros), hotel employees, staff in bakery factories, salespeople and (somewhat better paid) assembly line workers at Daimler, VW and BMW. Or fitters in shipbuilding. The profitable Meyer shipyard alone, known for its cruise ships, covers around 45 percent of its personnel requirements with workers whose contracts can be canceled at any time. So far, all of these companies had used contract workers. But since some unions have been able to achieve collective improvements for the around one million temporary employees and legal minimum requirements apply (minimum wage: 8.19 euros), more and more companies, completely legally, rely on the even cheaper contract employees. And with them - by outsourcing public tasks - also state institutions. "