MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms
Piece work is a variety of wage labour in which workers are paid per unit of production instead of by labour time.
Piece work has the form of sale of labour, rather than sale of labour-power, but this form disguises the real relationship, in which on one side is the capitalist who owns the means of production as private property, and on the other side, the proletarians, workers who have nothing to sell but their capacity to work. Thus, all the power rests on the side of the capitalist, who is able to force down the piece-rate paid to the workers to the minimum, so that the workers have to work their hearts out to get, at the end of the week, enough to live.
Piece work is therefore a means of disciplining wage workers and maximising the intensity of labour.
Piece-work was widely used in 19th century England and Marx wrote of it in Chapter 21 of Capital:
“Given piece-wage, it is naturally the personal interest of the labourer to strain his labour-power as intensely as possible; this enables the capitalist to raise more easily the normal degree of intensity of labour. It is moreover now the personal interest of the labourer to lengthen the working-day, since with it his daily or weekly wages rise. This gradually brings on a reaction like that already described in time-wages, without reckoning that the prolongation of the working-day, even if the piece wage remains constant, includes of necessity a fall in the price of the labour.
“... piece-wage is the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production.” [Capital, Chapter 21]