What is Wage Slavery?

wiseGEEK Writer

Wage slavery is a complicated term that has been used in many different contexts. There have been many references to its concepts by philosophers and the like, but the term is first recorded as used in 1836 by female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, called the Lowell Mill Girls. The women in Lowell factories lived in boarding houses, often owned by the factory owners, and worked (quite frequently at young ages) about 70-80 hours a week. The textile factories tried to strive toward improving some aspects of these women’s lives by offering them access to concerts and lectures, and they also insisted on high moral standards and church attendance. They paid relatively good wages for the time, prompting many to “sell their freedom” to earn a wage, which was resented expressly in a protest song written in 1836 by striking workers.

The term “wage slavery” was first used in 1836 by female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts.
The term “wage slavery” was first used in 1836 by female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts.

People tend to contrast wage slavery with chattel slavery, where a person’s work and body are owned, not rented by an employer. Being a slave to wages may also be viewed as the condition of most people who earn money for work. In an economy that depends upon people exchanging money instead of a barter or trade system, making money is required to participate in that economy. In this interpretation, anyone who works for an employer is a wage slave, and this means that wage slavery would be common in virtually all places, and doesn’t always imply that working for wages means working for less money than you truly deserve.

Wage slavery often forces workers to live in extreme conditions.
Wage slavery often forces workers to live in extreme conditions.

Some definitions of wage slavery are constructed differently. For instance, some say that wage slavery exists only when people work at jobs where they make just above the subsistence level and must put up with terrible working conditions and inability to create better working conditions due to suppression of unions. Such a definition of wage slavery identifies certain political structures as most common to produce it, including fascism, dictatorships, and some forms of communism.

Actually, a main goal of Marxian communism was to eliminate wage slaves by promoting self or community ownership of working environments, not government or private ownership and exploitation of workers. In all instances though, regardless of who owns the company, most people still had to work to receive necessities, and one definition of wage slave is that the person must work in order to survive. Failure to work limits ability to live in almost all government systems. Wage slavery may be viewed, too, as environments where employees have little to no public or governmental support if they can’t work, and where they have little choice about where they can work.

Opponents of wage slavery say no workers can be truly free when there exists inequity in ability own property. While some argue that in capitalist systems, workers are free to use their earnings to buy their own property, produce their own products or start their own companies, it’s certainly true that many people due to lack of funds and despite hard work will never get there. Even in wealthy and developed countries like the US, it is argued that wage slaves always exist because a small percentage of the population controls the majority of the country’s wealth. Most people must submit themselves to an employer in order to survive, and people with little formal education or training may have the hardest time ever rising above the poverty level, though certainly there are exceptions. However, it is debatable whether having an employer/employee relationship is really comparable to slavery.

One tool to combat wage slavery in developing countries is increased access to education.
One tool to combat wage slavery in developing countries is increased access to education.

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Discussion Comments


@ Alchemy- The restaurant industry is messed up. I used to live in Vermont and some inns and restaurants in the tourist towns would pay foreign workers less than $4.00 per hour. These “employees” would then have to work 12-16 hour shifts. This seems like modern day wage slavery to me. They could legally do so by giving them a place to stay (room and board), but often times the workers were crammed into run down slum apartments with four or five people sharing a bedroom. The worst part is that it was always the most expensive restaurants that would treat their foreign help this way.


@ Alchemy- What a crook. That was not exactly wage slavery by definition...more like coercion or blackmail, but still very messed up. At least that crook got what he deserved.


I can think of a unique instance where wage slavery exists in America. The treatment of ex-cons in some instances truly constitutes wage slavery. I have a good friend who was on probation and was being abused by his employer. Sadly, the employer was a chef/kitchen manager at a church kitchen. The chef was making him sign over his check on payday and taking about a quarter of his wages every week. He told my friend that he would fire him and tell his probation officer that he was stealing, automatically sending him to jail until the matter was sorted out. My friend told me it had been going on for the entire three months that he had been working there.

He eventually sought legal advice and filed a complaint with the state department of labor. He also told the church director (or whoever the head of the church is) who supposedly knew nothing about what the kitchen manager was doing. Long story short, the kitchen manager ended up in jail, and my friend and a few other ex-felons working for the kitchen were compensated for their ordeal.

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