International Labor Organization report on hours, wages, productivity (and the abolition of wage slavery)

by Jehu

The International Labor Organization’s report, “Working Time Around the World” (2007), demonstrates that the barbaric policy of the  capitalist class and fascist states of overworking their japans-suicide-salarymen-are-dying-for-work-1413283959935-crop_mobilerespective working classes to the point of physical exhaustion is a quite common practice in countries at all levels of economic development. Unlike economic reports written for domestic consumption in the advanced countries, the report confirms Marx’s observation on the relation between wage, productivity and hours of labor and points to reduction of hours of labor as the global path for accelerating the development of the productive forces and realizing the abolition of wage slavery in its entirety.

Marx was right

1. On the typical hours of labor prevailing within the world market, the International Labor Organization says more than 614 million workers are being forced to labor more than 48 hours a week:

“Finally, how many workers in the world are working more than 48 hours, the standard maximum stipulated in Conventions Nos. 1 and 30 and which appears to be essential for worker well-being? In making a global estimate, national incomes and the total volume of employment are taken into account; it turns out that our sample is fairly ‘random’ and also reasonably ‘representative’ (see Box 3.2). The result indicates that about one in five – 22.0 per cent, or 614.2 million workers – around the world are working more than 48 hours per week.”

2. The burden of overwork is felt even more severely by workers in the informal sector and the so-called self-employed, where hours of labor are a staggering 60 or more hours of labor per week:

“Domestic workers are in a rather unique situation because they work as employees of private households rather than of businesses: they are often treated as a special category under national labour laws with specific (less restrictive) rules on work hours and their personal relationships with host families are an essential component of their working conditions. Especially for domestic workers who live with their host families, this situation can make it difficult if not impossible to separate working time and personal time – a situation that can easily lead to excessively long hours of work. In Chile, for example, live-in domestic workers – virtually all of whom are women – averaged 59.3 hours per week (Echeverría 2002: 37).

A recent study of domestic workers in the Arab States (Esim and Smith 2004) sheds some new light on the working hours of domestic workers. Based on surveys of domestic migrant workers in Kuwait, the study found that (apart from part-time gardeners) hours of work are very long, averaging from 78 to 100 hours per week. For example, cooks worked an average of 88.4 hours per week, drivers 91 hours a week, security guards 99.7 hours per week and housemaids averaged 100 hours per week. A similar survey of household employers of these domestic workers found somewhat shorter but still long working hours: 66 hours a week for women and 60 per week for men, on average. In addition, overtime pay is typically not provided for these workers.”

3. As would be expected, low wages are the culprit in forcing workers to labor overly long hours, with overtime pay forming a significant portion of worker income:

“At the same time, and as hinted at earlier, low hourly pay can induce workers to work longer, and again there is some evidence of this phenomenon in countries across the world. A study in the Philippines, for example, has shown that low hourly pay and long working hours are significantly correlated, even concluding that ‘long hours of work are a reasonably good indicator of low-hourly pay for time-rated wage and salary workers’ (Mehran 2005). And in Viet Nam, where long hours are also widespread, overtime wages have also been found to form a significant proportion of wages, around 14 per cent of total wage income (ILO 2003c: table 15)”

4. At the same time, the International Labor Organization has found the more hours of labor are inversely correlated to the productivity and efficiency of labor. Longer work weeks produce less use values than shorter ones and the capitalists have been avoiding investment in improved machinery, technology, science, and rational organization simply by working the workers more hours:

“Working time policies have long been recognized as having a role in improving productivity. Indeed, this was a strand of the debate during the deliberations on the first international standard in 1919 (Murray 2001). More recently, it has formed a goal of measures to reduce hours in western Europe, perhaps most visibly in Germany (see further Bosch and Lehndorff 2001). In developing countries in particular, the relationship between working time and productivity is weak and increases in output are often fuelled by overtime work. In Mexico, for example, the productivity increases of recent years appear to have been caused primarily by long workdays rather than a more efficient use of working time (Esponda 2001). And with respect to Chile, Echeverría suggests that unproductive or very low performance ‘face time’ constitutes a significant element of long workdays and is the result of deficient work organization (Echeverría 2002).”

5. The International Labor Organization has found that working time reduction has been ignored all advanced and developing countries, although the correlation between hours of labor reduction and improved productivity is now firmly established:

“When integrated with broader initiatives on skill development, the role that working time reductions can play in advancing productivity by, in part, encouraging changes in work organization, is often missing from the debate, even in industrialized countries.”


One hundred forty years after the publication of Capital, the International Labor Organization essentially confirmed Marx’s argument in Capital that long hours of labor is correlated with low wages and low productivity across a wide spectrum of countries within the world market. The difference is that Marx figured this out in the mid-19th century and the simpletons are only now realizing it. Pretty good for a guy who is often portrayed as a Victorian simpleton with little or no data.

And if working time reduction can improve productivity, as Marx asserted, it also must accelerate capitalism toward its inevitable demise.

So what is the difficulty carrying this observation into policy? The fascist states, of course:

“In developing countries, it appears to be particularly hard for this vision of hours reductions and the relationship between hours and productivity to take hold, especially in the absence ofnational measures to encourage it. In China, for example, Frenkel and Kuruvilla (2002) have reported an emphasis on numerical and wage flexibility that is infrequently accompanied by moves towards functional flexibility. And Vaughan-Whitehead has noted, with respect to Central and Eastern European countries, that private firms operating in very competitive environments too often fail to take measures to improve the quality of employment or make investments in the skills of their workforces, with the inevitable negative long-term consequences for productivity (Vaughan-Whitehead 2005).”

The fascist states at all stages of development within the world market, which are interested solely in the most rapid “economic growth”, i.e., the most rapid expansion of the surplus value extracted from the working class, expansion of profit, has resisted labor time reduction. These fascist states are the national capitalists of their respective nations and have every interest in the longest possible working day.

Things have now come to a pass where the struggle against wage slavery is immediately bound up with the struggle against the state itself. Any reduction of hours of labor, abolition of wage slavery, calls for a direct assault on the fascist states themselves by a global working class movement.