“Wage slavery” is a controversial concept. As with “patriarchy”, plenty deny its existence. I will argue that it is quite real and that the “slavery” in the phrase is not misleading or inappropriate.
The two questions are distinct. I’ll tackle the existence question first, then argue that it is appropriately named.
Is it real?
A “wage slave” is a wage laborer who
a) depends on her wages to survive;
b) must work under subpar conditions to earn those wages; and
c) has no reasonably accessible alternatives that are significantly better.
(c) is crucial. Someone who depends on wages to survive but could switch to a different and cushier line of work if she wanted to would not be a wage slave. Someone who, on the other hand, could only switch to other jobs with similar conditions, would be a wage slave.
So defined, it should be obvious that wage slavery exists. Most people reading this depend on wages to survive. If you’ve ever been to a hotel or restaurant, chances are that you’ve been invisibly served by people who work under subpar conditions (to say nothing of sweatshops in China, etc.). Finally, given that these people are working in subpar conditions, they’d probably take a significantly better alternative if it were reasonably accessible to them. That they don’t is a strong indication that those alternatives aren’t, in fact, reasonably accessible.
There are two ways I can see of challenging the existence claim. The first is by asking: what standards are we using to judge “subpar conditions”?…
If existentialism means anything, it means believing in freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre, probably the most well-known existentialist, argued that, in all situations, we are free to choose between options. In fact, though existentialism is a diverse and complex school of thought, it boils down to the following two claims:
Radical freedom: we are always free to choose how to act.
Radical responsibility: we are personally responsible for our entire experience of life.
This should sound utterly incompatible with determinism: the view that causality is an exclusively physical phenomenon. If all causality reduces to the interactions of physical matter and forces, what room is left for personal choice? This isn’t even a question about whether physical states of affairs fully determine how everything will turn out (“hard determinism”). Even if some level of probability or even randomness enters the picture, so long as it all happens in the realm of the physical, then, whichever way it happens to work, it’s still notup to us.
Or, to put it more precisely: even though some of it is up to us, how we choose to influence what is up to us is not up to us. We obviously do choose. But how we choose is only the manifestation of physical causation doing its thing. As Schopenhauer put it: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”