A “piece wage” is a wage payment by quantity of products or units produced by a worker.
Time wages and piece wages both exist and sometimes side by side. Marx argues that “[w]ages by the piece are nothing else than a converted form of wages by time, just as wages by time are a converted form of the value or price of labour-power” (Marx 1906: 602).
But piece wages conceal surplus labour value and unpaid labour time:
“Piece-wages do not, in fact, distinctly express any relation of value. It is not, therefore, a question of measuring the value of the piece by the working time incorporated in it, but on the contrary of measuring the working-time the labourer has expended, by the number of pieces he has produced. In time-wages the labour is measured by its immediate duration, in piece-wages by the quantity of products in which the labour has embodied itself during a given time. The price of labour-time itself is finally determined by the equation; value of a day's labour = daily value of labour-power. Piece-wage is, therefore, only a modified form of time-wage.So piece wages can control and ensure the intensity and quality of labour, and supervision of workers becomes to a great degree unnecessary (Marx 1990: 695).
Let us now consider a little more closely the characteristic peculiarities of piece-wages.
The quality of the labour is here controlled by the work itself, which must be of average perfection if the piece-price is to be paid in full. Piece-wages become, from this point of view, the most fruitful source of reductions of wages and capitalistic cheating.
They furnish to the capitalist an exact measure for the intensity of labour. Only the working-time which is embodied in a quantum of commodities determined beforehand and experimentally fixed, counts as socially necessary working time, and is paid as such. In the larger workshops of the London tailors, therefore, a certain piece of work, a waistcoat e.g. is called an hour, or half an hour, the hour at 6d. By practise it is known how much is the average product of one hour. With new fashions, repairs, etc., a contest arises between master and labourer, whether a particular piece of work is one hour, and so on, until here also experience decides. Similarly in the London furniture workshops, etc. If the labourer does not possess the average capacity, if he cannot in consequence supply a certain minimum of work per day, he is dismissed.” (Marx 1906: 604–605).
Piece wages therefore become the basis of domestic labour, sweat shop labour and subletting or subcontracting of labour, and parasitical capitalist middlemen arise in the process (Marx 1990: 695). Piece wages therefore produce a hierarchy of wages (Marx 1990: 695).
As Marx says:
“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.” (Marx 1906: 606–607).Marx even thinks that the “piece-wage is the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production” (Marx 1906: 608).
As the productivity per hour of the piece wage worker increases with new technology, so the actual piece wage must fall, given the falling amount of socially necessary labour embodied in each individual output product (Marx 1990: 699).
So Marx argues that employers keep the piece wage rates at the subsistence level to continue to steal surplus labour-time, and the wage per piece tends to be the daily value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour divided by the average number of pieces produced per day by the average worker (Brewer 1984: 65).
Brewer, Anthony. 1984. A Guide to Marx’s Capital. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Harvey, David. 2010. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Verso, London and New York.
Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1; rev. trans. by Ernest Untermann from 4th German edn.). The Modern Library, New York.
Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One (trans. Ben Fowkes). Penguin Books, London.