All wage labour is exploitation

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After a six-year campaign the TUC and the CBI, with government prompting, have recently agreed that 1.4 million temporary and agency workers should, after 12 weeks, have equal rights with full-time and permanent workers. Dave Prentis, the TUC President, said that "This is good news for agency workers, particularly those in workplaces where low pay, long hours and exploitation are the norm" and that "The abuse of temporary agency workers is a shameful relic of another age".

In a report for the TUC on ‘vulnerable workers' there was shock that "employment practices attacked as exploitative in the 19th century are still common today". It highlighted "extreme abuse of the rights of migrant workers, including levels of exploitation and control that meet the international legal definition of forced labour." It gave the examples of "employers illegally retaining workers' passports, threats or actual physical violence to workers and debt bondage - where a worker is forced to pay off debts accrued by inflated accommodation and food costs and is not therefore paid for their work."

Speaking of an earlier study, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said "Too many unscrupulous bosses are getting rich by exploiting migrant workers", but "Unions are working hard to recruit migrant workers to protect them from rogue employers who seek to deny their workers a fair day's work for a fair day's pay." After all, "exploitation is not necessary for the operation of the British economy".

We work in order to live

The "good news" for agency and temporary workers is something that the TUC hope to bring to other ‘vulnerable workers' (migrant workers, home workers, informal workers, younger workers, unpaid family workers etc). By acquiring the rights of permanent workers it is implied that they will no longer be so shamefully exploited.

With the growth of part-time, temporary, illegal and other precarious forms of employment there are an increasing number of people who find themselves in insecure, hyper-pressurised or otherwise dodgy working situations. ‘Exploited' is a word commonly used to describe workers who work in the worst conditions. From a marxist understanding of the relationship of the working class to its capitalist employers, all wage labour - no matter what conditions it takes place in, whether it's done with extreme reluctance or is the fulfilment of a childhood dream, whether it's down a mine, in a factory, shop or comfortable air-conditioned office - it's all exploitation.

For workers to be able to use their labour power, in exchange for wages, they need to be able to function at various levels, depending on the job. However, every worker needs food, sleep, clothing and some sort of shelter. These are the basics. The wages that you receive are intended to ensure that you will be ready for work on every day you're needed. If employers provide food, accommodation, somewhere to sleep, healthcare, training etc, it's so that you can work for them.

Whether bought with your wages, or provided by an employer/state, everything that enables you to reproduce your labour power helps your availability for work. Fundamentally we all work to live. We work for the necessities that keep us alive. Things like holidays are something that employers know are essential if workers are not to get completely burnt out. You might have a car, where your grandparents might not have, but, with the decline in public transport and the necessity to carry children or shopping about, it is by no means a luxury any more. You might ‘own' your own home, but in reality you will have this absolutely massive debt (with the fancy name of mortgage) that you will spend decades paying off, and comes with the assumption that you will be in reasonably well-paid employment for most of your working life. At root the resources invested in the working class are to ensure we can continue to work. Anything beyond the basics, then you're lucky that your employer maybe wants to keep you on for the foreseeable future - but we are all dispensable.

Wage labour works for capital

Having said that, let's return to our valuable labour power. For a certain amount of the time you will be working just to reproduce your labour power. However, at a certain point, the work you are doing is beyond the value of what is required to keep you functioning. This surplus value comes from labour time workers put in for free, and it goes to the exploiting class. Whether we call them bosses, the bourgeoisie or the capitalist class, they are the ruling class in capitalist society and the surplus value from unpaid labour-time is theirs to do with what they will. Some might wear smart suits and hang out in Mayfair or Manhattan, while others wear less fashionable suits, combat jackets or tunics and call themselves ‘Communists' in Beijing, Havana or Pyongyang: what they have in common is their relationship to surplus value. They are the exploiting class that pays the wages and the working class is the exploited class that creates all value.

Of the surplus value, after a part that's invested in new machinery, raw materials etc, (as Bukharin wrote in 1919 in The ABC of Communism) "Part goes to the capitalist himself, in the form of entrepreneur's profit; part goes to the landowner; in the form of taxes, part enters the coffers of the capitalist state; other portions accrue to merchants, traders and shopkeepers, are spent upon churches and in brothels, support actors, artists, bourgeois scribblers, and so on. Upon surplus value live all the parasites who are bred by the capitalist system".

This is the secret of all wage labour. "The fact that capitalist production is precisely the extraction, realisation and accumulation of this stolen labour makes it by definition, by nature, a system of class exploitation in full continuity with slavery and feudalism. It's not a question of whether the worker works for 8, 10 or 18 hours a day, whether his working environment is pleasant or hellish, whether his wages are high or low. These factors influence the rate of exploitation, but not the fact of exploitation. Exploitation is not an accidental by-product of capitalist society, the product of individual greedy bosses. It is the fundamental mechanism of capitalist production and the latter could not be conceived without it" (chapter 7 of ICC publication Communism: not a nice idea but a material necessity).

So, when Brendan Barber makes remarks on ‘rogue employers' and commends the unions' campaigns, we follow the ideas of Marx in Wages, Price and Profit when he said that "Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!'" we should have "the revolutionary watchword ‘Abolition of the wages system'", as it is the only thing that corresponds to the interests of the working class. This is revolutionary because it requires the destruction of the state by the working class, the overturn of the capital/wage labour relationship, and the building of a communist society where everyone contributes according to their abilities, and receives according to their needs. Car 1/6/8