1970s >> 1978 >> no-892-december-1978

Hard work and piece wages

  Communist China is back on the “capitalist road” and Mao’s successors don’t mind who knows it. Chairman Hua says that a more pragmatic approach is essential if China is to achieve its objective of overtaking Western industrialised countries by the year 2000.

William Davis—Daily Express Sept. 8, 1978


As in Stalin’s Russia, piecework, bonuses and “work points” are increasingly used as incentives in China and wage differentials are encouraged. Mao’s pragmatic successors say “egalitarianism is a petty bourgeois utopian Socialist idea”. A remark which is quoted approvingly by the Daily Express: “Mrs Thatcher could not have put it better.”


There is no evidence that this is a new trend. Rather the reverse. “Learn from Tachai!” has been a slogan all over China for many years, since Tachai has served as a “model village” since 1964. Under the “Tachai system” the work-points for an 8-hour day range from 10 to a low of 4 for the aged or beginners. Women being the “weaker sex” get at most 8 to 8.5 work-points. Men however often get more than 9 work-points. The elderly get 5 or 5.5 work-points. Obviously there is great inequality even within a single commune.


Is the Chinese work-points system a new wage form? No! It is a form of piece-wage.


Under the Tachai system: “meetings are held at regular intervals in which peasants evaluate their own work and suggest a work-point rating for themselves. Then other peasants discuss the ratings and adjust them if necessary. The factors considered in determining work points for each person are first that person’s attitude toward work and then his or her level of skill and degree of strength.” (China! Inside the People’s Republic by the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars 1972).


Evidently results are what count. The man or woman who has hoed more rows or laid more courses of bricks or harvested most rice or corn, compared with others working under similar conditions, is bound to end up with the highest work-point rating and therefore a higher income. This is the essence of the piece-work system: wages appear to be determined by the quantity of work completed.


The use of piecework is a time-honoured and loathesome practice of the employer who wants to induce his workers to put their noses to the grindstone. For those who believe, like Mr. Davis, that China is “communist”, it is worth quoting what Marx had to say of “piece-wages”.


In the first place, he is emphatic that a “piece- wage is . . . only a modified form of time-wage”. But there are significant differences. Piece wages, said Marx, become “the most fruitful source of reductions of wages and capitalistic cheating” and “since the quality and intensity of the work are here controlled by the form of the wage itself, superintendence of labour becomes in great part superfluous”. With Government legislation limiting the length of the working day, capital could only become more productive by intensifying labour and consequently piece-wages became the general rule in factories. “Piece-wage is the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production” (Marx, Capital, vol. I chap. xxi).


The Chinese work-points system is used, like other piecework systems, to spur workers on to harder exertions in the erroneous belief that what they produce will all come back to them. That however is not the case, in China or anywhere else. Under the Tachai system, “the total number of work-points is divided into the income left after all other expenses.” This meant on a commune called Hongqiao that only “60 per cent of the total income is distributed to the workers”. The rest was divided out as follows:-


Costs of production                                         25%
To the state for tax                                            5%
Capital improvements of the commune         7%
Public benefit fund                                           3%
(including, medical and social services, nurseries and schools)

(China! Inside the People’s Republic)


Such a system produces results. The most obvious result is that where nearly half of what workers produce does not come back to them, the bosses have to provide some very juicy incentives in the form of “bonuses” to make it seem worthwhile to do any work at all.


This is a problem of the capitalist system the world over—the system in which the working class is made to produce surplus value—wealth over and above what they can expect to receive in wages, however computed—is a system which takes the motivation and joy out of labour. It has changed the once enthusiastic pioneers of Liberation in China into those workers whose enthusiasm has to be stimulated by Hua’s Thatcherite policy of “material incentives”.


China’s rulers can be really proud of their progress in catching up with Western capitalism’s ingenious devices for exploiting the wage-slave class and extracting a maximum of surplus value by traditional capitalist methods. They must also be pleased that most people all over the world are still duped by the con-trick they copied from the Kremlin of calling a capitalist wage-slave state “communism”. Whatever the name, the underlying reality for workers is everywhere the same: selling their labour power for wages which are less than the value of what they produce, they remain forever poor and exploited. This condition can never be changed in its essence as long as the wages system lasts.


Charmian Skelton