Overexploitation of the workforce

Image: Animesh Srivastava


The essential mechanism in the social relation of capitalist production, in maintaining its high profits

It is admitted that the category that best characterizes the peculiarity of dependent capitalism – in the light of the Marxist theory of dependency – is the overexploitation of the workforce.[I] Therefore, in the theoretical development of Ruy Mauro Marini,[ii] the super-exploitation of the labor force is presented as part of a compensation mechanism in which dependent capitalism is used to face transfers of value to central capitalism.

Ruy Mauro Marini starts from the thesis of unequal exchanges, which refers to disguised mechanisms that allow transfers of value between the different productive regions (countries), circumventing the exchange laws determined by production prices and expressed in market prices. Indeed, the interrelation of peripheral and central regions (developed and undeveloped/dependent) – with lower and higher labor productivity, respectively (or between producers of raw materials and manufactured goods), makes clear the transfer process of value (or surplus value), since the discrepancy between the capital compositions of the center and the periphery, widens the gap in labor productivity between both productive spaces, conditioning peripheral countries to maintain their status as underdeveloped and dependent from the center, based on global integration (as a determination of the international division of labor).

However, the logic of maintaining this exchange system, although unequal and disadvantageous for dependent countries, is extremely viable from the perspective of capital and its reproduction (whether central or peripheral), since disadvantaged nations due to unequal exchange do not seek to correct this imbalance (which would imply a redoubled effort to increase labor productivity), but led by their bourgeoisies, they seek to “compensate the loss of income generated by international trade through the resource of greater exploitation of the worker”.[iii]

This allows us to deduce, therefore, that the capitalists who operate in dependent economies, impatient perhaps, for the realization of their profits, prefer to reduce wages than to increase their productive capacities with investments, consequently that they would compete for the increase of the organic composition of the capital (increase in labor productivity). Especially because, since they produce hegemonically abroad, their demands are independent of the wages practiced (and consumers) internally.

That said, the super-exploitation of labor means the fall in the prices of the workforce, below its value, implying greater wear and tear and a reduction in the useful life of the working human being. In general terms, it can be understood as representing “a form of exploitation in which the value of the workforce is not respected”,[iv] understood, therefore, as a transgression of the law of value in Marx.

Although criticisms are raised, the aforementioned tension between the value of the workforce and its transgression was not left aside by Karl Marx. However, the element of greatest critical attack against the German philosopher is directed to his theory of exploitation, which refers to the condition of the worker's remuneration for the sale, or rent, of his labor force commodity. Based on Marx, it is possible to consider, by the principle of equivalence of value, that the wage rate (W*) remunerates the physical, mental and moral reproduction conditions of the worker, and, therefore, it is conceived that the value of force of work (Vft) is monetarily equal to the salary (W*), thus it is observed, under general conditions of central capitalism that W* = Vft[v].

Based on this, Alfredo Saad Filho[vi] develops a critique of Marx's approach to the conception of equivalence between wages and the value of the workforce, which confirms the transgression of the law of value (although it is not the focus of his critique), based on three points. First, because it is based on a poor reading of Marx, that is, little developed in theoretical-empirical depth. Second, because it is unable to explain the composition of the basket of wage goods or the wage rate, or differences between wages in different segments of the labor market.

Finally, the aforementioned author understands that this interpretation obscures the mercantile nature of the workforce, that is, it implicitly denies the payment of monetary wages, and confuses workers with the goods they consume or, alternatively, confuses the expenses of workers. workers with the “technology of production” of labor power, “as if this human capacity were produced for profit”[vii].

In contrast to these possible theoretical shortcomings in Marx, Saad Filho presents an alternative approach to defining the value of labor power as the share of wages in national income. According to that author, the value of labor power is the command over the abstract work that workers receive in exchange for their labor power in the form of a monetary wage. And he adds that “workers in capitalist society do not negotiate or receive a basket of goods as payment for their work force, they receive an amount of money, the monetary wage”, therefore, money cannot disappear as a mediating element of the process. ”.[viii]

Through this interpretation, Alfredo Saad Filho brings money into the debate and shows the specificity of exploitation in capitalism as an appropriation of surplus value in the form of money. This interpretation makes clear the recognition of the role of distributive conflicts in determining wages, as well as evidence that, unlike other commodities, the value of labor power is not justified (or limited) only by elements of a physical nature, but above all by elements of a historical and social nature.[ix]

The transgressive character of the law of value is also explored by Luce[X], when he presents the overexploitation of the workforce as a negative determination of the value contained in the law of value. In this sense, it contributes to the understanding that the living corporeality of the workforce is subjected to premature wear, that is, the living substance is not restored under normal conditions, which leads to a lowering of its value. Indeed, the author seeks to explore the essence of overexploitation, assuming it as a negative determination of the value of the workforce contained within the scope of the law of value, as he presents that “The law of value is simultaneously the assumption and denial of value. It is simultaneously the interchange of equivalents and their negation. It is simultaneously the payment of labor power close to its value and the payment below its value”. And he adds that “it is both the consumption of the workforce around its value, and its accelerated consumption, exhausting it prematurely.

Overexploitation is, therefore, the exacerbation of the negative tendency, inscribed in the law of value.[xi]. In this way, Luce makes it clear that at the same time that overexploitation is subject to the general law of value, it is also subject to its more specific determinations. Therefore it is also understood as “transgression of value contained in the law of value”[xii].

With the above, it is reiterated that the overexploitation of the workforce is, therefore, a compensation law that is to make the consumption (a euphemism for overexploitation or overconsumption) of the labor force commodity more flexible, as a condition of survival in this competition uneven global, inter capital. As a result, overexploitation requires the Brazilian labor market to maintain structural conditions of “flexibility”, imposing constant pressure to reduce the real wage rate and to maintain permanent precarious conditions for the material (and physiological) reproduction of workers, as shown observes in Graph 01, where in recent years an intensification of the gap between the average wage in Brazil and a proxy of the value of the workforce assumed by the minimum wage required, as estimated by DIEESE (2022).

Graph 01. Contrast Actual average income effectively received from all jobs x Minimum Wage Required[xiii]

Source: Quarterly Continuous National Household Sample Survey (IBGE, 2022)[xiv] and DIEESE (2022)[xv]

In this dynamic, Latin America and specifically Brazil, while contributing to the increase in the rate of surplus value and the rate of profit in the central industrial countries, corroborate the impoverishment of world workers, considered as mere commodities overconsumed by the capital. The transgression of value based on the overexploitation of the workforce is configured, therefore, in the continuous aggression against human subjects, where repeated action is seen as an essential mechanism in the social relationship of capitalist production, in maintaining its high profits.

*Francisco Eduardo de Oliveira Cunha Professor at the Department of Economic Sciences at the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI).



[I] Ruy Mauro Marini in Dialectic of dependency. In: Germinal: Marxism and Education in Debate, Salvador, v. 9, no. 3, p. 325-356, Dec. 2017; Jaime Osorio in Dependency and overexploitation. MARTINS, Carlos Eduardo et al. (Org.). Latin America and the Challenges of Globalization. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2009; Mathias Seibel Luce in Marxist Theory of Dependency. Problems and categories – a historical view. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2018.

[ii] See Marini, cit. (2017, p. 331).

[iii] ID Ibid., p. 332.

[iv] See Osório, cit. (2009).

[v] MARX, K. Capital: a critique of political economy. Book 1. 17th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1999.

[vi] SAAD FILHO, A. Wages and exploitation in the Marxist theory of value. Economy and Society, Campinas, (16): 27-42, jun. 2001.

[vii] ID Ibid., p. 33.

[viii] ID Ibid., p. 34.

[ix] ROSDOLSKY, R. Genesis and structure of Karl Marx's Capital. Rio de Janeiro: EDUERJ, Contraponto, 2001.

[X] See Luce, cit. (2018).

[xi] ID Ibid., p. 155.

[xii] ID Ibid., p. 155.

[xiii] Estimate made by the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (Dieese), minimum wage needed to support a family of four.

[xiv] IBGE. Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. (2022). Quarterly Continuous National Household Sample Survey/PNADCT. Available in: .

[xv] DIEESE. Interunion Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies. (2022). Nominal and required minimum wage. Available in: .

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