Wage slavery is a complicated term that has been used in many different contexts. There have been many references to its concepts by philosophers and the like, but the term is first recorded as used in 1836 by female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, called the Lowell Mill Girls. The women in Lowell factories lived in boarding houses, often owned by the factory owners, and worked (quite frequently at young ages) about 70-80 hours a week. The textile factories tried to strive toward improving some aspects of these women’s lives by offering them access to concerts and lectures, and they also insisted on high moral standards and church attendance. They paid relatively good wages for the time, prompting many to “sell their freedom” to earn a wage, which was resented expressly in a protest song written in 1836 by striking workers.
People tend to contrast wage slavery with chattel slavery, where a person’s work and body are owned, not rented by an employer. Being a slave to wages may also be viewed as the condition of most people who earn money for work. In an economy that depends upon people exchanging money instead of a barter or trade system, making money is required to participate in that economy. In this interpretation, anyone who works for an employer is a wage slave, and this means that wage slavery would be common in virtually all places, and doesn’t always imply that working for wages means working for less money than you truly deserve.
Some definitions of wage slavery are constructed differently. For instance, some say that wage slavery exists only when people work at jobs where they make just above the subsistence level and must put up with terrible working conditions and inability to create better working conditions due to suppression of unions. Such a definition of wage slavery identifies certain political structures as most common to produce it, including fascism, dictatorships, and some forms of communism.
Actually, a main goal of Marxian communism was to eliminate wage slaves by promoting self or community ownership of working environments, not government or private ownership and exploitation of workers. In all instances though, regardless of who owns the company, most people still had to work to receive necessities, and one definition of wage slave is that the person must work in order to survive. Failure to work limits ability to live in almost all government systems. Wage slavery may be viewed, too, as environments where employees have little to no public or governmental support if they can’t work, and where they have little choice about where they can work.
Opponents of wage slavery say no workers can be truly free when there exists inequity in ability own property. While some argue that in capitalist systems, workers are free to use their earnings to buy their own property, produce their own products or start their own companies, it’s certainly true that many people due to lack of funds and despite hard work will never get there. Even in wealthy and developed countries like the US, it is argued that wage slaves always exist because a small percentage of the population controls the majority of the country’s wealth. Most people must submit themselves to an employer in order to survive, and people with little formal education or training may have the hardest time ever rising above the poverty level, though certainly there are exceptions. However, it is debatable whether having an employer/employee relationship is really comparable to slavery.