MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY ponders whether workers really get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work?
AS WITH so many apparently simple questions, the answer to this week’s question is both Yes and No.
It’s easiest to start by considering what is blatantly unfair pay. Top executives, especially in the private sector, but also in the public services (such as university chancellors and academy heads) may be paid 10, 20 or (in the case of company CEOs) several hundred times as much as their lower-paid employees.
Figures from the High Pay Centre show how FTSE 100 CEO pay has exploded, going from 48 times the pay of the average employee in 1995 to 129 times it 2015.
The UK Equal Pay Act 1970 prohibited any less favourable pay or conditions of employment between men and women. The principle of equal pay for equal work was also embodied in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
In Britain, both have now been largely subsumed (together with earlier anti–discrimination legislation including the 1976 Race Relations Act) within the 2010 Equality Act.
Significant disparities in pay continue however.
Significant disparities in pay continue however. A recent study commissioned by the government’s Social Mobility Unit revealed that professional employees from “working-class” family backgrounds are paid on average £6,800 (17 per cent) less each year than those from more affluent backgrounds.
Even when they have the same educational attainment, role and experience as their more privileged colleagues, those from poorer backgrounds are still paid an average of £2,242 (7 per cent) less.
Women and ethnic minorities face additional earnings disadvantage.
Women and ethnic minorities face additional earnings disadvantage. Men from professional and managerial backgrounds earn 21 per cent more than working-class women in the same professions, while black and ethnic minority professionals generally earn less than white colleagues in similar roles.
Yet while discrimination against women and ethnic groups is often acknowledged (and is illegal) the biggest disparities in pay are (as with the hierarchy of pay grades between upper managerial and so-called “routine” occupations) regarded as normal, justified on the need to provide “incentives” — the implication being that jobs such as nursing bring their own rewards, that money is unimportant.
It’s unfair that income inequality should be growing, year on year
All this, of course, is blatantly unfair. It’s unfair that income inequality should be growing, year on year; that real wages for the many should be falling at a time when remuneration for the few is rocketing.
It’s unfair that health workers should have to resort to foodbanks to make ends meet. It’s unfair that McDonald’s staff should have to strike to secure £10 per hour. It’s unfair that … (yes, you’ve made your point, move on — Ed).
And with the rise of the gig economy, zero-hours contracts and phoney self-employment.... it’s getting worse.
And with the rise of the gig economy, zero-hours contracts and phoney self-employment (the feeble Taylor Review calls them “modern working practices”) it’s getting worse. Much worse.
“Solutions” often consist of advocating for more women or ethnic minorities in top jobs without questioning why it is that those jobs should be paid so much more than the average industrial wage in the first place.
Even TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady responded to the commission’s findings by declaring: “We need to get more working-class people in better-paid jobs.”
Labour’s challenge to bogus self-employment, its proposals to raise the minimum wage and to refuse government contracts to firms that pay their top earners more than 20 times the pay of the lowest-paid workers, has at least put debates on pay back on the agenda.
Debates about fair pay have been going on since the origins of the wage system.... Marx’s great contribution was to show that capitalism is inherently exploitative.
But we need to be careful about basing our arguments on morality alone. Debates about fair pay have been going on since the origins of the wage system.
The question of “fair pay” goes beyond looking at disparities in income. Marx’s great contribution was to show that capitalism is inherently exploitative.
Workers produce more value at work than they and their families receive either directly (as pay) or indirectly, as a “social wage” through education, health and other public services paid for through taxation.
Workers produce more value at work than they and their families receive ....Capitalism has proved remarkably successful in obscuring this fundamental aspect of its character.
Capitalism has proved remarkably successful in obscuring this fundamental aspect of its character. The slogan “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” — the motto of the English working-class movement at the time of Marx and Engels and subsequently of US craft unions in the 1880s — was rapidly taken up by representatives of capital.
Frederick Taylor, pioneer of “scientific management,” adopted it early last century as the basis for his assertion that there need be no conflict between capitalist and worker.
For Taylor, a “fair day’s work” was defined as the physiological maximum — the intensity of effort and output that a worker could sustain over a long period. And a “fair day’s pay” was the minimum necessary to support the worker and family.
Ironically this was no more than what Marx and Engels had shown, more than half a century before, to be an inherent tendency of capitalist economies.
Under capitalism there’s no such thing as “fair pay.”
In his pamphlet Wages, Prices and Profit (1865), Marx challenged those who believed that exploitation and poverty could be ended by appealing to “fairness.”
“Instead of the conservative motto: ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’,” wrote Marx, “they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system’.”
Fair pay is a complex topic and one that socialism will not solve automatically, though socialism is an essential prerequisite for addressing it.
In the meantime, the fight for fair pay, the struggle for a real living wage, and demands for parity where pay differentials exist and for a cap on the income of the highest earners are all vitally important.
So in short to the question is there such as thing as fair pay, the answer is No. Under capitalism there’s no such thing as “fair pay.”