Deville - The People's Marx (1893)

Chapter XX: Time-Wages

The price of labor.—Working only part-time contrasted with a general curtailment of the working-day.—Low price of labor and prolongation of the day.

Wages assume very varied forms. We will consider the two fundamental forms—time-wages and piece-wages.

The Price of Labor-Power.

Labor-power is always sold, it will be remembered, for a definite period of time. Hence, in the first place, the daily or weekly value of labor-power appears under the phenomenal form of time-wages—day-wages or week-wages.

In time-wages, the difference must be noted between the total amount of the wages by the day, week, etc., and the price of labor. It is clear, indeed, that according to the length of the day, the same daily or weekly wages may represent very different prices of labor. The average price of labor is obtained by dividing the average daily value of labor-power by the average number of hours in the working-day. If, for instance; the daily value is 60 cents, and the working-day is twelve hour long, the price of one hour is equal to 60 cents divided by twelve—or to 5 cents. The price per hour, thus found, is the unit measure of the price of labor. Wages may remain constant and the price of labor rise or fall. If, for example, the working-day becomes ten hours, and wages remain at 60 cents, the price of labor per hour will be found to be 6 cents. If the day rises to fifteen hours, the price per hour will fall to 4 cents. On the contrary, wages may rise, although the price of labor does not change or even falls. If the average day is ten hours, and the daily value of labor-power 60 cents, the price per hour is 6 cents. If, in consequence of an improvement in trade, the laborer works 12 hours instead of ten, and the price of labor is unchanged, his daily wages will rise to 72 cents. In this last case, let us note parenthetically that in spite of the rise in wages, labor- power may still be paid below it value, if this advance is not sufficient to counterbalance the greater wear and tear of labor-power resulting from the longer labor exacted.

In general, the duration of the daily or weekly labor being given, the daily or weekly wages will depend on the price of labor. If the price of labor is given, the daily or weekly wages will depend on the daily or weekly duration of labor.

Working Only Part-Time, Contrasted With a General Curtailment of the Working-Day.

The price of one hour's labor—the unit measure of time-wages—is obtained, as we have said, by dividing the daily value of labor-power by the number of hours in the average day. But, if the employer does not give the laborer regular employment for this number of hours, the laborer receives less than his regular wages. Here we discover the source of the ills that result for the laborer from insufficient employment or partial idleness.

If the time used as a basis for calculating the wages per hour is twelve hours, for instance, and if the laborer is employed for only six or eight hours, his wages per hour, which multiplied by twelve just answer to provide him with the necessary means of subsistence, become quite inadequate when they are—in consequence of shortened employment—no longer multiplied by twelve, but by six or eight.

Naturally it is necessary not to confound the effect of this partial want of work with the decrease of work that would result from a general curtailment of the working-day. In the first case, the ordinary price of labor is calculated on the basis of the regular day being, for instance, twelve hours, and if the laborer works less—let us say, eight hours—his wages are inadequate for his support; while, in the second ease, the ordinary price of labor would be calculated on the basis of the regular day being, for instance, only eight hours, and, therefore, the price per hour would be higher. Even then it might happen that the laborer would not receive his full regular wages, but this would happen only when he was employed less than eight hours, while this happens in the first case, if he is employed less than twelve hours.

Low Price of Labor and Prolongation of the Day.

In some branches of industry in which time-wages are the general rule, the custom has grown up of considering as normal a day of a certain number of hours, as, for instance, ten. After this point begins what is known as over-time, and which is paid a little more per hour. The low price of labor during the time considered normal, forces the laborer, in order to secure an adequate wage, to work during the over-time which is a little less poorly paid. This leads to—an advantage for the capitalist—a prolongation of the working-day. Legal limitation of the working-day puts an end to this trickery.

We saw above that, the price of labor being given, the daily or weekly wages depend on the duration of the labor performed. It follows from this that the lower the price of labor, the longer must the working-day be for the laborer to obtain an adequate wage. If, the price of labor per hour was 3 cents, the laborer would have to work fifteen hours to obtain a daily wage of 45 cents; if the price of labor per hour is 5 cents, a day of twelve hours is sufficient to provide him a daily wage of 60 cents. The low price of labor, therefore, necessarily leads to the prolongation of the labor-time.

But if the prolongation of the day is, as has been shown, the natural effect of the reduced price of labor, it may, on its side, become the cause of a reduction of the price of labor, and, therefore, of a reduction of daily or weekly wages. If, thanks to the prolongation of the day, one man performs the work of two, the supply of labor is increased, although the number of laborers on the market has not varied. The competition thus created between the laborers enables the capitalist to reduce the price of labor, and the fall of this price, as we have just seen, makes possible, in its turn, a still further prolongation of the day. The capitalist, therefore, profits in two ways—both by the fall of the ordinary price of labor, and by its extraordinary duration.

Meanwhile, however, this power of disposing of an unusual amount of unpaid labor soon becomes a source of competition among the capitalists themselves. In order to hold and secure as many orders as possible, they reduce the prices of the commodities on which they are making the most. These reduced prices finally become fixed at an abnormally low level, which becomes thenceforth the permanent basis of miserably low wages for the labourers in these industries.