19th-century female workers in Lowell, Massachusetts were arguably the first to use the term “wage slave”.

Wage slavery refers to a situation where a worker’s livelihood depends on wages, especially when the dependence is total and immediate. It is a pejorative term used to draw an analogy between slavery and wage labor by focusing on similarities between owning and renting a person. The term wage slavery has been used to criticize economic exploitation and social stratification, with the former seen primarily as unequal bargaining power between labor and capital (particularly when workers are paid comparatively low wages, e.g. in sweatshops), and the latter as a lack of workers’ self-management, fulfilling job choices and leisure in an economy. The criticism of social stratification covers a wider range of employment choices bound by the pressures of a hierarchical society to perform otherwise unfulfilling work that deprives humans of their “species character” not only under threat of starvation or poverty, but also of social stigma and status diminution. The view that working for wages is akin to slavery dates back to the ancient world.

In 1763, the French journalist Simon Linguet published a description of wage slavery:

” The slave was precious to his master because of the money he had cost him . . . They were worth at least as much as they could be sold for in the market . . . It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live . . . It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him . . . what effective gain [has] the suppression of slavery brought [him ?] He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune . . . These men . . . [have] the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is, need. . . . They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free? ” Among abolitionists, both views were prevalent. Some Abolitionist in the United States regarded the analogy as spurious.They believed that wage workers were “neither wronged nor oppressed” Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans argued that the condition of wage workers was different from slavery, as laborers were likely to have the opportunity to work for themselves in the future, achieving Self employment. The abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass initially declared, “Now I am my own master”, upon taking a paying job. But later in life, he concluded to the contrary, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other”.

Living wage and income eniquality