Karl Marx. Capital Volume One

Chapter Twenty: Time-Wages


Wages themselves again take many forms, a fact not recognizable in the ordinary economic treatises which, exclusively interested in the material side of the question, neglect every difference of form. An exposition of all these forms however, belongs to the special study of wage labour, not therefore to this work. Still the two fundamental forms must be briefly worked out here.

The sale of labour-power, as will be remembered, takes place for a definite period of time. The converted form under which the daily, weekly, &c., value of labour-power presents itself, is hence that of time-wages, therefore day-wages, &c.

Next it is to be noted that the laws set forth, in the 17th chapter, on the changes in the relative magnitudes of price of labour-power and surplus-value, pass by a simple transformation of form, into laws of wages. Similarly the distinction between the exchange-value of labour power, and the sum of the necessaries of life into which this value is converted, now reappears as the distinction between nominal and real wages. It would be useless to repeat here, with regard to the phenomenal form, what has been already worked out in the substantial form. We limit ourselves therefore to a few points characteristic of time-wages.

The sum of money [1] which the labourer receives for his daily or weekly labour, forms the amount of his nominal wages, or of his wages estimated in value. But it is clear that according to the length of the working-day, that is, according to the amount of actual labour daily supplied, the same daily or weekly wage may represent very different prices of labour, i.e., very different sums of money for the same quantity of labour. [2] We must, therefore, in considering time-wages, again distinguish between the sum-total of the daily or weekly wages, &c., and the price of labour. How then, to find this price, i.e., the money-value of a given quantity of labour? The average price of labour is found, when the average daily value of the labour-power is divided by the average number of hours in the working-day. If, e.g., the daily value of labour-power is 3 shillings, the value of the product of 6 working-hours, and if the working-day is 12 hours, the price of 1 working hour is 3/12 shillings = 3d. The price of the working-hour thus found serves as the unit measure for the price of labour.

It follows therefore that the daily and weekly wages, &c., may remain the same, although the price of labour falls constantly. If, e.g., the habitual working-day is 10 hours and the daily value of the labour-power 3s., the price of the working-hour is 3 3/5d. It falls to 3d. as soon as the working-day rises to 12 hours, to 2 2/5d as soon as it rises to 15 hours. Daily or weekly wages remain, despite all this, unchanged. On the contrary, the daily or weekly wages may rise, although the price of labour remains constant or even falls. If, e.g., the working-day is 10 hours, and the daily value of labour-power 3 shillings, the price of one working-hour is 3 3/5d. If the labourer, in consequence of increase of trade, works 12 hours, the price of labour remaining the same, his daily wage now rises to 3 shillings 7 1/5 d. without any variation in the price of labour. The same result might follow if, instead of the extensive amount of labour, its intensive amount increased. [3] The rise of the nominal daily or weekly wages may therefore be accompanied by a price of labour that remains stationary or falls. The same holds as to the income of the labourer’s family, as soon as the quantity of labour expended by the head of the family is increased by the labour of the members of his family. There are, therefore, methods of lowering the price of labour independent of the reduction of the nominal daily or weekly wages. [4]

As a general law it follows that, given the amount of daily or weekly labour, &c., the daily or weekly wages depend on the price of labour which itself varies either with the value of labour-power, or with the difference between its price and its value. Given, on the other hand, the price of labour, the daily or weekly wages depend on the quantity of the daily or weekly labour.

The unit-measure for time-wages, the price of the working-hour, is the quotient of the value of a day’s labour-power, divided by the number of hours of the average working-day. Let the latter be 12 hours, and the daily value of labour-power 3 shillings, the value of the product of 6 hours of labour. Under these circumstances the price of a working hour is 3d.; the value produced in it is 6d. If the labourer is now employed less than 12 hours (or less than 6 days in the week), e.g., only 6 or 8 hours, he receives, with this price of labour, only 2s. or 1s. 6d. a day. [5] As on our hypothesis he must work on the average 6 hours daily, in order to produce a day’s wage corresponding merely to the value of his labour power, as according to the same hypothesis he works only half of every hour for himself, and half for the capitalist, it is clear that he cannot obtain for himself the value of the product of 6 hours if he is employed less than 12 hours. In previous chapters we saw the destructive consequences of over-work; here we find the sources of the sufferings that result to the labourer from his insufficient employment.

If the hour’s wage is fixed so that the capitalist does not bind himself to pay a day’s or a week’s wage, but only to pay wages for the hours during which he chooses to employ the labourer, he can employ him for a shorter time than that which is originally the basis of the calculation of the hour-wage, or the unit-measure of the price of labour. Since this unit is determined by the ratio
daily value of labour-power
working-day of a given number of hours’

it, of course, loses all meaning as soon as the working-day ceases to contain a definite number of hours. The connection between the paid and the unpaid labour is destroyed. The capitalist can now wring from the labour a certain quantity of surplus-labour without allowing him the labour-time necessary for his own subsistence. He can annihilate all regularity of employment, and according to his own convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment, make the most enormous overwork alternate with relative or absolute cessation of work. He can, under the pretense of paying “the normal price of labour,” abnormally lengthen the working-day without any corresponding compensation to the labourer. Hence the perfectly rational revolt in 1860 of the London labourers, employed in the building trades, against the attempt of the capitalists to impose on them this sort of wage by the hour. The legal limitation of the working-day puts an end to such mischief, although not, of course, to the diminution of employment caused by the competition of machinery, by changes in the quality of the labourers employed, and by crises partial or general.

With an increasing daily or weekly wage the price of labour may remain nominally constant, and yet may fall below its normal level. This occurs every time that, the price of labour (reckoned per working-hour) remaining constant, the working-day is prolonged beyond its customary length. If in the fraction:
daily value of labour power

the denominator increases, the numerator increases yet more rapidly. The value of labour-power, as dependent on its wear and tear, increases with the duration of its functioning, and in more rapid proportion than the increase of that duration. In many branches of industry where time-wage is the general rule without legal limits to the working-time, the habit has, therefore, spontaneously grown up of regarding the working day as normal only up to a certain point, e.g., up to the expiration of the tenth hour (“normal working-day,” “the day’s work,” “the regular hours of work”). Beyond this limit the working-time is over-time, and is, taking the hour as unit-measure, paid better (“extra pay”), although often in a proportion ridiculously small. [6] The normal working-day exists here as a fraction of the actual working-day, and the latter, often during the whole year, lasts longer than the former. [7] The increase in the price of labour with the extension of the working-day beyond a certain normal limit, takes such a shape in various British industries that the low price of labour during the so-called normal time compels the labourer to work during the better paid over-time, if he wishes to obtain a sufficient wage at all. [8] Legal limitation of the working-day puts an end to these amenities. [9]

It is a fact generally known that, the longer the working-days, in any branch of industry, the lower are the wages. [10] A. Redgrave, factory inspector, illustrates this by a comparative review of the 20 years from 1839-1859, according to which wages rose in the factories under the 10 Hours Law, whilst they fell in the factories in which the work lasted 14 to 15 hours daily. [11]

From the law, “the price of labour being given, the daily or weekly wage depends on the quantity of labour expended,” it follows, first of all, that the lower the price of labour, the greater must be the quantity of labour, or the longer must be the working-day for the labourer to secure even a miserable average wage. The lowness of the price of labour acts here as a stimulus to the extension of the labour-time. [12]

On the other hand, the extension of the working-time produces, in its turn, a fall in the price of labour, and with this a fall in the day’s or week’s wages.

 The determination of the price of labour by:
daily value of labour power
working day of a given number of hours

shows that a mere prolongation of the working-day lowers the price of labour, if no compensation steps in. But the same circumstances which allow the capitalist in the long run to prolong the working-day, also allow him first, and compel him finally, to nominally lower the price of labour until the total price of the increased number of hours is lowered, and, therefore, the daily or weekly wage. Reference to two circumstances is sufficient here. If one man does the work of 1½ or 2 men, the supply of labour increases, although the supply of labour-power on the market remains constant. The competition thus created between the labourers allows the capitalist to beat down the price of labour, whilst the falling price of labour allows him, on the other hand, to screw up still further the working-time. [13] Soon, however, this command over abnormal quantities of unpaid labour, i.e., quantities in excess of the average social amount, becomes a source of competition amongst the capitalists themselves. A part of the price of the commodity consists of the price of labour. The unpaid part of the labour-price need not be reckoned in the price of the commodity. It may be presented to the buyer. This is the first step to which competition leads. The second step to which it drives is to exclude also from the selling price of the commodity at least a part of the abnormal surplus-value created by the extension of the working-day. In this way, an abnormally low selling price of the commodity arises, at first sporadically, and becomes fixed by degrees; a lower selling price which henceforward becomes the constant basis of a miserable wage for an excessive working-time, as originally it was the product of these very circumstances. This movement is simply indicated here, as the analysis of competition does not belong to this part of our subject. Nevertheless, the capitalist may, for a moment, speak for himself. “In Birmingham there is so much competition of masters one against another that many are obliged to do things as employers that they would otherwise be ashamed of; and yet no more money is made, but only the public gets the benefit.” [14] The reader will remember the two sorts of London bakers, of whom one sold the bread at its full price (the “full-priced” bakers), the other below its normal price (“the under-priced,” “the undersellers”). The “full-priced” denounced their rivals before the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry: “They only exist now by first defrauding the public, and next getting 18 hours’ work out of their men for 12 hours’ wages.... The unpaid labour of the men was made ... the source whereby the competition was carried on, and continues so to this day.... The competition among the master bakers is the cause of the difficulty in getting rid of night-work. An underseller, who sells his bread below the cost-price according to the price of flour, must make it up by getting more out of the labour of the men.... If I got only 12 hours’ work out of my men, and my neighbor got 18 or 20, he must beat me in the selling price. If the men could insist on payment for over-work, this would be set right.... A large number of those employed by the undersellers are foreigners and youths, who are obliged to accept almost any wages they can obtain.” [15]

This jeremiad is also interesting because it shows how the appearance only of the relations of production mirrors itself in the brain of the capitalist. The capitalist does not know that the normal price of labour also includes a definite quantity of unpaid labour, and that this very unpaid labour is the normal source of his gain. The category of surplus labour-time does not exist at all for him, since it is included in the normal working-day, which he thinks he has paid for in the day’s wages. But over-time does exist for him, the prolongation of the working-day beyond the limits corresponding with the usual price of labour. Face to face with his underselling competitor, he even insists upon extra pay for this over-time. He again does not know that this extra pay includes unpaid labour, just as well as does the price of the customary hour of labour. For example, the price of one hour of the 12 hours’ working-day is 3d., say the value-product of half a working-hour, whilst the price of the over-time working-hour is 4d., or the value-product of 2/3 of a working hour. In the first case the capitalist appropriates to himself one-half, in the second, one-third of the working-hour without paying for it.



1. The value of money itself is here always supposed constant.

2. “The price of labour is the sum paid for a given quantity of labour.” (Sir Edward West, “Price of Corn and Wages of Labour,” London, 1836, p. 67.) West is the author of the anonymous “Essay on the Application of Capital to Land.” by a Fellow of the University College of Oxford, London, 1815. An epoch-making work in the history of Political Economy.

3. “The wages of labour depend upon the price of labour and the quantity of labour performed.... An increase in the wages of labour does not necessarily imply an enhancement of the price of labour. From fuller employment, and greater exertions, the wages of labour may be considerably increased, while the price of labour may continue the same.” (West, op. cit., pp. 67, 68, 112.) The main question: “How is the price of labour determined?” West, however, dismisses with mere banalities.

4. This is perceived by the fanatical representative of the industrial bourgeoisie of the 18th century, the author of the “Essay on Trade and Commerce” often quoted by us, although he puts the matter in a confused way: “It is the quantity of labour and not the price of it” (he means by this the nominal daily or weekly wages) “that is determined by the price of provisions and other necessaries: reduce the price of necessaries very low, and of course you reduce the quantity of labour in proportion. Master manufacturers know that there are various ways of raising and felling the price of labour, besides that of altering its nominal amount.” (op. cit., pp. 48, 61.) In his “Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages,” London, 1830, in which N. W. Senior uses West’s work without mentioning it, he says: “The labourer is principally interested in the amount of wages” (p. 14), that is to say, the labourer is principally interested in what he receives, the nominal sum of his wages, not in that which he gives, the amount of labour!

5. The effect of such an abnormal lessening of employment is quite different from that of a general reduction of the working-day, enforced by law. The former has nothing to do with the absolute length of the working-day, and may occur just as well in a working-day of 15, as of 6 hours. The normal price of labour is in the first case calculated on the labourer working 15 hours, in the second case on his working 6 hours a day on the average. The result is therefore the same, if he in the one case is employed only for 7½, in the other only for 3 hours.

6. “The rate of payment for overtime (in lace-making) is so small, from ½ d. and ¾ d. to 2d. per hour, that it stands in painful contrast to the amount of injury produced to the health and stamina of the workpeople.... The small amount thus earned is also often obliged to be spent in extra nourishment.” (“Child.Empl.Com., II. Rep.,” p. xvi., n. 117.)

7. E.g., in paper-staining before the recent introduction into this trade of the Factory Act. “We work on with no stoppage for meals, so that the day’s work of 10½ hours is finished by 4:30 p.m., and all after that is over-time, and we seldom leave off working before 6 p.m., so that we are really working over-time the whole year round.” (Mr. Smith’s “Evidence in Child. Empl. Com., 1. Rep.,” p. 125.)

8. E.g., in the Scotch bleaching-works. “In some parts of Scotland this trade” (before the introduction of the Factory Act in 1862) “was carried on by a system of over-time, i.e., ten hours a day were the regular hours of work, for which a nominal wage of 1s. 2d. per day was paid to a man, there being every day over-time for three or four hours, paid at the rate of 3d. per hour. The effect of this system ... a man could not earn more than 8s. per week when working the ordinary hours ... without over-time they could not earn a fair day’s wages.” (“Rept. of Insp. of Factories,” April 30th, 1863, p. 10.) “The higher wages, for getting adult males to work longer hours, are a temptation too strong to be resisted.” (“Rept. of Insp. of Fact.,” April 30th, 1848, p. 5.) The book-binding trade in the city of London employs very many young girls from 14 to 15 years old, and that under indentures which prescribe certain definite hours of labour. Nevertheless, they work in the last week of each month until 10, 11, 12, or 1 o’clock at night, along with the older labourers, in a very mixed company. “The masters tempt them by extra pay and supper,” which they eat in neighboring public houses. The great debauchery thus produced among these “young immortals” (“Children’s Employment Comm., V. Rept.,” p. 44, n. 191) is compensated by the fact that among the rest many Bibles and religious books are bound by them.

9. See “Reports of lnsp. of Fact.,” 30th April, 1863, p. 10. With very accurate appreciation of the state of things, the London labourers employed in the building trades declared, during the great strike and lock-out of 1860, that they would only accept wages by the hour under two conditions: (1), that, with the price of the working-hour, a normal working day of 9 and 10 hours respectively should be fixed, and that the price of the hour for the 10 hours’ working-day should be higher than that for the hour of the 9 hours working-day; (2), that every hour beyond the normal working-day should be reckoned as over-time and proportionally more highly paid.

10. “It is a very notable thing, too, that where long hours are the rule, small wages are also so.” (“Report of Insp. of Fact.,” 31st. Oct., 1863, p. 9.) “The work which obtains the scanty pittance of food, is, for the most part, excessively prolonged.” (“Public Health, Sixth Report,” 1864, p. 15.)

11. “Report of Inspectors of Fact.,” 30th April, 1860, pp. 31, 32.

12. The hand nail-makers in England, e.g., have, on account of the low price of labour, to work 15 hours a day in order to hammer out their miserable weekly wage. “It’s a great many hours in a day (6 a.m. to 8 p.m.), and he has to work hard all the time to get 11 d. or 1s., and there is the wear of the tools, the cost of firing, and something for waste iron to go out of this, which takes off altogether 2½d. or 3d.” (“Children’s Employment Com., III. Report,” p. 136, n. 671.) The women earn by the same working-time a week’s wage of only 5 shillings. (l.c., p. 137, n. 674.)

13. If a factory-hand, e.g., refused to work the customary long hours, “he would very shortly be replaced by somebody who would work any length of time, and thus be thrown out of employment.” (“Reports of Inspectors of Factories,” 30th April, 1848. Evidence, p. 39, n. 58.) “If one man performs the work of two... the rate of profits will generally be raised ... in consequence of the additional supply of labour having diminished its price.” (Senior, l.c., p. 15.)

14. “Children’s Employment Com., III Rep.,” Evidence, p. 66, n. 22.

15. “Report, &c., Relative to the Grievances Complained of by the Journeymen Bakers.” London, 1862, p. 411, and ib. Evidence, notes 479, 359, 27. Anyhow the full-priced bakers, as was mentioned above, and as their spokesman, Bennett, himself admits, make their men “generally begin work at 11 p.m. ... up to 8 o’clock the next morning.... They are then engaged all day long ... as late as 7 o’clock in the evening.” (l.c., p. 22.)


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