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How the bosses exploit workers

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Issue 1699

What do socialists say?

How the bosses exploit workers

By Hazel Croft

“I FEEL exploited” is a phrase I’m sure most of us have uttered at some point. And usually with good reason-we’ve had a shitty day at work, we feel used and taken for granted. The word “exploited” is often used to describe how any individual or group of people are treated badly. So, for example, people describe how firms exploit the environment or how men exploit women.

But what does the term really mean? When Marxists talk about exploitation they are referring to something specific about the way the capitalist system works. New Labour and trade union leaders use the term to refer to a “few rotten bosses” who treat their workers in a particularly disgusting way. The assumption is that most employers treat their workers fairly and workers get “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.

But Karl Marx showed that under capitalism exploitation is not an exception but the rule. It isn’t just a few bad apples, but all bosses who exploit workers. More than this, Marx argued, exploitation is the foundation on which the whole capitalist system rests. Workers may seem to “voluntarily” go into work in exchange for their pay packet. We have to sign contracts “agreeing” to accept the wages and conditions offered by the bosses.

But far from being “fair”, the exchange between capitalists and workers rests on a fundamental inequality. The capitalist has control of all the tools, raw materials, factories and offices. By contrast, workers have no choice but to work for such people. The only alternative is to try to live on meagre state benefits or to starve. The bosses extract their profits from the labour of workers by paying them less than the value of the goods they produce.

When bosses hire workers they buy the workers’ ability to work, or their “labour power” as Marx described it. People’s capacity to work depends on them being able to get enough food, clothes, shelter and rest to be fit enough to turn up to work each day and to put in enough hard graft.

So bosses pay workers enough to pay for rent or a mortgage, for food and clothing, with just enough left over to spend on leisure. What counts as “enough” depends on the social conditions of a particular society. But although labour power is bought just like any other commodity, there is one vital difference. Labour creates more value than it costs to keep workers fit for work.

For example, in Britain today it roughly takes about three hours work a day to cover the daily cost of a worker’s food, clothes, shelter and so on. However, workers don’t clock off after three hours. They are there for eight hours a day or longer.

That means the boss is getting five or more hours work a day off you for nothing. It is this unpaid labour that is the source of the bosses’ profits, or what Marx called “surplus value”. The rate of exploitation doesn’t depend on how little or much you get paid-although of course the bosses try to get away with paying us as little as possible.

Even if a worker is on a relatively high wage, they are still being exploited because the value of what they produce is far more than the value the capitalist pays them in wages. Far from being the wealth or job creators, the capitalists have accumulated their riches by stealing the product of the labour of others.

By doing so the capitalists can grab hold of more of the means of production and so force more workers to slave for them. Because capitalism is a ruthlessly competitive system, bosses are constantly looking for ways to increase the rate of exploitation of their workforce in order to boost profits.

That is what lies behind the drive to try to make us work longer hours and to work more “flexibly”-what one recent commentator has rightly dubbed “flexploitation”. That means there is a constant struggle between bosses and workers, who try to resist the bosses’ pressure to increase exploitation.

Sometimes that struggle is what Marx called “hidden”, when workers slow up production, take longer tea breaks or “sickies”. And sometimes the struggle is “open”-when workers act collectively by organising, striking or occupying their workplace. When workers do take such collective action they have tremendous power to strike at the heart of the bosses’ system.

But to end exploitation altogether means going much further. It means a fundamental challenge to the whole of the capitalist system and ultimately workers themselves taking over the productive process.

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