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The term wage labour (or wage labor) connotes a socioeconomic relationship between a worker and an employer, especially one in which the worker sells their labour, contract employment, or salaried so-called "permanent", "direct" or "full-time" service, and carries with it an implication of a labour market with enough actors of each kind for a market determination of wages to arise. In exchange for the wages paid, the work product generally becomes the undifferentiated property of the employer, except for special cases such as the vesting of intellectual property patents in the United States where patent rights are always invested in the original personal inventor. A wage labourer is a person whose primary means of income is from the selling of his or her labour in this way.
The term is also used as a substantive to refer to the sold labour power and the production process in which it is applied by an employer in exchange for the wage price.. There are substantial differences in the different arrangements, for example between independent contractors and an employer and that employers full-time employees where the former are essentially interacting like businesses with the latter arrangement being the common referent of the term as discussed in this article.
In modern mixed economies such as that of the United States, it is currently the dominant form of work arrangement. Although most work occurs in some form of this structure, the wage work arrangements of CEOs, professional employees, and professional contract workers are sometimes conflated with class assignments so that "wage labour" is considered to apply only to unskilled or manual labour.
The most common form of wage labour currently is ordinary direct, or "full-time", employment in which a free worker sells his labour for an indeterminate time (from a few years to the entire career of the worker), in return for a money-wage or salary and a continuing relationship with the employer which it does not in general offer contractors or other irregular staff. However, wage labour takes many other forms, and explicit as opposed to implicit (i.e. conditioned by local labour and tax law) contracts are not uncommon. Economic history shows a great variety of ways in which labour is traded and exchanged. The differences show up in the form of:
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 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. 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", (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."
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