From the Wikipedia entry on Wage Labor:
The term wage labour … connotes a socioeconomic relationship between a worker and an employer, especially one in which the worker sells their labour, contract employment, or salaried so-called “permanent”, “direct” or “full-time” service, and carries with it an implication of a labour market with enough actors of each kind for a market determination of wages to arise. In exchange for the wages paid, the work product generally becomes the undifferentiated property of the employer, except for special cases such as the vesting of intellectual property patents in the United States where patent rights are always invested in the original personal inventor. A wage labourer is a person whose primary means of income is from the selling of his or her labour in this way.
The first point of criticism is on the freedom of the worker. Capitalist societies emerged from removing the alternative means of self-sustainment used previously by peasants. Historical records show that every time people had their own land to cultivate, as was the case for most of the population in pre-industrial England, colonial Kenya or in colonial Australia, they didn’t commit to work for an employer. In such cases, laws were promulgated to expel peasants from their lands, and to make the price of the land artificially high so that a common person would have to work an entire lifetime to buy it.
The second point of criticism is that after people have been compelled to no feasible alternative than that of wage labour, exploitation occurs. The worker is kept in a condition of mere survival, while the wealth produced by his or her work goes to the employer. Also, the technological progress which increases productivity is not used to reduce the work time and improve the quality of life of the worker; instead, it is used entirely to increase the profit of the employer. The employer who buys this labour power as if it were a mere commodity owns the labour process and can sell the products to make profit. On the other hand, the worker sells their creative energy and their liberty for a given period, and are alienated from their own labour, as well as its products.
Wage labour is often criticized as “wage slavery” by socialists and most anarchists. They see wage labour as a major, if not defining, aspect of hierarchical industrial systems. In Marxist terminology, wage labour is defined as “the mode of production where the worker sells their labour power as a commodity”, (and a wage labourer is one who sells their labour power.)
Opponents of capitalism compare wage labour to slavery (see wage slavery). For example, Karl Marx said “The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once for all… The [wage] labourer, on the other hand, sells his very self, and that by fractions… He [belongs] to the capitalist class; and it is for him… to find a buyer in this capitalist class.”
I wouldn’t say that socialism is ideal, nor would I say that about pure capitalism. And I know little else about economics, although I’m learning a fair amount as I go through work, reading, and my talk radio habit. This particular popular Marxist-Socialist concept, though, that of the more unhappy aspects of wage labor, has always resonated particularly well with me.
Clearly, in modern US and Western European societies, one is not “exploited” in the ways that peasants in colonial Kenya or Australia were, but it also works as a metaphor. The modern-day equivalents of this type of exploitation exist all over, and in surprising places. An office setting, a work environment that I used to covet so much when I worked long retail hours in a mall, can be maddeningly soul-sucking, and when you realize just how much you put up with, and for so little when you really think about what you’re giving up — the majority of the waking hours of the majority of your adult days! — it sounds really, well, exploitative; especially when you consider that, unless you’ve started your own business, you have no other option but to partake in said wage labor.
And it wouldn’t be such an issue if we weren’t alienated from our labor. So many of us don’t see a tangible result of the 8 or more hours a day we spend at work.