Wage Slavery Is Real and Appropriately Named

“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”?

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