What is Piece Work?

Mary McMahon

When someone is hired to do piece work, he or she is paid on the basis of how much is produced, rather than being offered a flat hourly wage. This is closely associated with the garment and textile industries, and it is also used to assemble some electronics. It has also been a subject of historical debate, since some opponents believe that piece work is harmful for workers, while supports argue that it supports a free market economy. Both sides have valid points, and some governments have made efforts to address the issue.

Piece work may be used to assemble some electronics.
Piece work may be used to assemble some electronics.

The concept of piece work is quite old. In the English language, the idea of pieces of work taken home by apprentices dates back to the 1500s. The development of assembly line systems further promoted the concept, since it is well suited to creating a small part of an individual whole. Piece work is often linked with sweatshop labor in many people's minds as a result, since it was often performed in grueling conditions and accompanied by long hours. In some cases, it can also be accomplished at home, which has raised questions about labor regulation, since the home is not an easily regulated or inspected environment.

Factory workers commonly perform piece work.
Factory workers commonly perform piece work.

With the development of factories, many companies adopted the traditional piece work system. Factory workers logged the amount of work that they completed, typically submitting tracking stubs to a foreman who double checked the work before signing off on it so that the employees could be paid. Some modern factories continue to use this system, especially in developing nations.

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Piece work is considered to be an excellent example of performance-related pay, since the amount of take home pay is directly linked to the worker's performance. Supporters of these systems argue that workers are rewarded for distinguishing themselves, while slower workers are fairly compensated for their labors. By directly tying pay to the amount of items produced, this encourages workers to complete tasks at a high rate of speed, translating into greater efficiency for the company hiring the workers.

Opponents of piece work points out that the high rate of speed can be dangerous for workers, and that it may promote injuries, not efficiency. Concerns have also been raised about the amount of pay received, with some labor advocates claiming that slower workers are not, in fact, fairly compensated. This compensation method also places a value on quantity over quality, which may not be desired.

Piece work is often linked with sweatshop labor.
Piece work is often linked with sweatshop labor.

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Discussion Comments


A factory I know of pays piece rate, but also expects workers to work a 37.5 hour week and clock in and out. If someone clocks in late, our leaves early wages are docked for time keeping, but they have earned the parts doing piece work. Also, all work rates have been timed, but if someone works hard and does over, then the rate is put up without retiming. Is this legal?


One of my neighbors is a stay-at-home mom with a young baby. She was looking for a job that she could do at home. She looked on the internet. Most of what she saw was sewing piece work. She doesn't know how to sew, so she kept looking and found a job stuffing envelopes

This is called piece work because she is paid by the stuffed envelope. It is easy work and takes little concentration. She can watch TV or play with her baby while doing the work. I don't know how much she gets paid, but it's good, steady work and gives the family a little extra money.


Just like lots of people, mainly women, did piece work in past centuries in Europe and America, today many workers do piece work in developing countries. They mostly make pieces of clothing. The piece work pay is almost always low.

Sorry to say that piece work is offered on the internet as piece work from home opportunities. I've heard this piece work employment company sends you material to make a piece of a product. Then you send it in and if it doesn't meet their specifications, you don't get paid. I think some of these are scams. Watch out for "work at home advertisements."


What is the difference between "piece work" and "flat rate"?

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