Introduction

“While many reject the core of Marx’s theory of exploitation, the labour theory of value, the structural understanding of exploitation has been preserved. Accordingly, exploitation is understood as an unequal transfer of labour between two groups that are structurally related through their positions within the relations of production”.1

Theory of exploitation, according to Marx, explains that if a worker is forced to sell his labour for less than the exchange value, i.e., the price, of the commodities they produce with their labour, she/he is economically exploited. Practically, this refers to an employer who hires a labourer who produces more value in an hour than what the employer pays her/him per hour. This difference between the wage and the price is called the surplus-value. Simply put, economic exploitation consists in capitalists’ (forced) appropriation of the surplus-value produced by labourers in order to create a profit.

In this paper, I claim that the Marxist account of exploitation is too narrowly defined because it merely focuses on the labour position in relation to production within the public sphere. It excludes activities happening outside the market setting which are also vulnerable to exploitation.

To see why it is too vague, we must dissect Marx’s theory. First, (i) the theory is built on the creation and distribution of valued commodities - goods and services produced for sale and purchase on markets – and builds its analysis of exploitation through commodities, which I refer to as the commodity-feature. Second, (ii) the Marxist theory of exploitation analyses only labour exchanged for a wage. In other words, it only explains the labourers’ exploitation with regard to their position within the relations of production and their productivity. This is referred to as the exchange-value-feature. Both (iii) the commodity and exchange-value-feature explain why the theory cannot deal with labour exploitation outside of a market setting, i.e., labour that is not sold to an employer or that is not exchanged for a wage.

It is hard to see all forms of labour exploitation if we focus merely on the relationship between exchange value and wage. Among others, the strict division between the public and private sphere compromises Marx’s analysis by neglecting, for example domestic work, care-work, and uncommodifiable labour which is considered “non-labour” in the Marxist account of exploitation.2

According to Feminists perspective, men dominate the public sphere in contrast to the private sphere which is essentially relegated by women. Consequentially, this perspective assumes that different types of labour are unequally divided between men and women, a phenomenon that is referred to as the gender division of labour. Many studies have shown the existence of the gender division of labour where women tend to take up unproductive labour, i.e., labour which adds no value, for example, unpaid domestic labour, and men tend to specialise more in productive labour, i.e., labour which has an exchange value. More specifically, opposite to productive labour, unproductive labour cannot be exploited by capital.

Inasmuch as Marx focusses on the division of labour taking place on the market, his account of exploitation ignores the gender division of labour. It undervalues much of women’s labour as this labour is uncompensated. Indeed, feminists pointed out that women's unpaid or undervalued labour is hidden by the assumption that women’s domestic labour cannot be exploited given that it’s performed outside the market.3

Feminist theorists have argued persuasively that the reduction by Marx of all types of exploitation to only labour market exploitation leaves out much of the specific exploitation of women.4 By looking beyond the creation and distribution of “valued” goods, one can reveal other forms of exploitation and avoid the invisibility of women’s exploitation through such reductionism.

In this paper, I will present four forms of exploitation, most likely experienced by women, which are unjustifiably overlooked the Marxist account of exploitation due to its narrow focus on the labour market and the exchange value of commodities. By noticing that the four forms of unfairness cannot be considered non-exploitative, this provides a basis to broaden the concept of exploitation. Furthermore, these four forms of exploitation will serve as evidence that the Marxist account of exploitation fail to elucidate other forms of exploitation that women experience.

This paper proceeds as follows. Section 1 will present the exploitation of paid and unpaid labour by focusing on the inconsistency between the exchange value and the real value of domestic and care-work. Next, in Section 2, the exploitation of production and reproduction of the labour force, often mentioned by Marxist feminists, will be presented. To finish, in Section 3, I will put forward one example of how gender makes women vulnerable to exploitation through the common expectation that women naturally execute affective labour.

Section 1: Exploitation of Paid and Unpaid Care-Work

The concept of care-work includes various types of nursing and supporting activities such as childcare, elderly care, teaching, health care, etc. Nevertheless, care-work includes not only paid care-work, but it also entails the array of unpaid domestic work. Both paid and unpaid care-work are often performed by women. Inasmuch as care-work, viewed as “women’s work”, is an essential contributor to the economy, it is simply seen as having little worth.5

Marx’ theory can only explain women’s role regarding their position within the relations of production. Tasks related to housework and care-work remain unexplained since there is no “value creation”. For example, caring for the elderly and children, despite not creating wealth, has an impact on economic growth through the investment in human capital. Next to the child and husband, others in society will benefit from her “invisible labour”. The mindset that only trade, industry, and craft create value results in economic ignorance of the real value creation of work outside the market setting. Therefore, labourers active in paid and/or unpaid care-work perform necessary and essential work for free or below-market compensation. Consequently, women produce more value than they get. Simply put, almost without exception, these women fall victim to exploitation. Iris Marion Young said: “Women undergo specific forms of gender exploitation in which their energies and powers are expended, often unnoticed and unacknowledged, usually to benefit men (...).”6

Feminists have argued that unpaid caregiving and the role of a housewife are equally indispensable forms of labour and that the gender division of labour, is exploitative. Moreover, socialist feminists Alison Jaggar and Iris Marion Young objected to the “double day of work” which burdens most women who work outside the home and have children. Likewise, they condemned the economic dependency and insecurity of stay-at-home mothers and childcare-workers' low salaries.7

The following two sub-sections will focus on exploitation through both unpaid and paid care-work. I will proceed in two steps. First and foremost, I will explain, by putting forward the previously mentioned features, in what way the Marxist account of exploitation cannot reveal women’s exploitation. Afterwards, I will present how unpaid and paid labour are unmeasured or undervalued despite their substantial contribution.

1.1 Exploitation Through Unpaid Care-Work

How the Marxists’ account of exploitation is unable to notice this form of exploitation.

Even though traditional gender roles are slowly vanishing in western countries, domestic work is still primarily executed by women. The Marxists account of exploitation is unable to notice this because of the above-mentioned “commodity feature” as domestic work happens outside the market setting. As a result, Marxist feminists are broadening the classical Marxist analysis by applying it to unpaid domestic labour.8 Inasmuch as domestic work is marginalized, unpaid care-work really is work. Whereas the Marxist account of exploitation focus on exchange value and wage, unpaid domestic work is not considered as a market-based good or service and, thus, not linked to a wage. Hence, the Marxist theory of exploitation does not reveal whether a domestic home worker is subject to exploitation.

Consequentially, one must grant value to the housewife's uncounted labour hours despite the absence of money or the labour market. As long as the undervaluation of traditionally “female” work subsists, she will remain exploited.

Moreover, women are forced to make a trade-off between paid and unpaid labour due to the demands of their caring duties. It limits not only the hours she can spend in paid work but also other activities that support her personal and professional growth. The role of the woman as the principal carer for the family throughout their lives affects women because it preserves economic and gender inequalities, undermines women’s well-being, creates burdens for economic prosperity and amplifies existing gender vulnerabilities to exploitation.

The contribution of unpaid work to the economy while leading simultaneously to labour exploitation of women cannot be ignored. Firstly, women produce 35 percent of the world’s food, but she owns only one percent of property.9 Secondly, an OECD study (2014, p.2) revealed that European women spend on average two and a half additional hours daily on unpaid care-work than men. Thirdly, the contribution of unpaid care-work is roughly estimated at 10 trillion dollars per year, around 13% of the global GDP.10 Nevertheless, female workers' vital contribution to the global economy– and the exploitation they experience – often remains unseen.

Accordingly, women’s domestic labour, such as all the cooked meals, laundry, and general care-work, ought to be designated as economic activity regardless of being external to the market. If we continue with the narrow concept of exploitation, only women participating in the labour market will be visible when exploited. For instance, the Indian economy is one with a low women’s labour participation percentage.11 Consequentially, only this small part of women active in the labour market are visible when exploited by capital. The others outside the market are, regarding the traditional account of exploitation, not exploited.

To stop this form of exploitation, we need governments to pay attention and act more to put in place policies, infrastructure and services which recognise and redistribute unpaid care-work.

1.2 Exploitation Through Paid and Undervalued Care-Work

Care-work is not necessarily unpaid – as there is a market in some Western countries which runs caring economies, with the labourers paid for their work. According to The International Labour Organization, domestic work is one of the most common forms of employment for women, accounting for – 1 on 13 female workers globally, and even 1 on 4 in Latin America.12

How the Marxists’ account of exploitation is unable to notice this form of exploitation.

Inasmuch as care-workers are active in the public sphere, they are still vulnerable to a form of exploitation which the Marxist account is unable to reveal because of the above mentioned “exchange-value-feature”. In other words, it is impossible to see whether there is any surplus value since there is no profit creation in capital production terms. Thus, care-work is useful for society, but is unproductive for direct profit. Furthermore, wages are determined based on productivity, whereas most care-workers produce services rather than products, making it harder to improve productivity. Increasing productivity means decreasing the number of minutes to execute a task. In the case of services, especially in care-work, this leads to a lower service quality. For example, if a teacher takes up fewer minutes to lecture, it is most likely that the students struggle more to obtain good grades than if she took more time.

Moreover, care sector jobs, regardless of their economic and social importance, tend to be poorly paid and insecure. According to the WEF13, only 10% of domestic workers worldwide are employed in countries that provide equal protection under national labour laws. Some 30% of domestic work in countries ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Singapore, are completely excluded from labour laws, leaving them without such basic protections as a minimum wage, overtime pay, rest days, or social security. Care-workers often have few channels to redress the legal protections they are entitled to.14 Consequently, domestic workers exposed to exploitation are unable to report the unfairness they are the victim of. However, the Marxist theory of exploitation cannot detect this form of exploitation if it merely analyses the work done in public, e.g., nurses, teachers, etc.

Regarding home care-workers, they work in an isolated environment with limited supervision and guidance making them more prone to exploitation. Home care-workers not only work in an isolated environment but also experience some of the worst working conditions. These conditions result from a juxtaposition of factors: Domestic work is performed behind closed doors, often excluded from social and labour protections and without a formal working contract, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Yet, home care-work is relegated to the private sphere, and hence exploitation remains invisible for the Marxist account of exploitation. The combination of the privacy of the home, lack of adequate protections and discriminatory social norms leave these workers particularly vulnerable to working long hours for low pay and exposed to abuse and violence at work. Due to the workforce's composition, i.e., gender division of labour, these conditions disproportionately affect women.15 Therefore, it is essential to raise motivation to treat care-workers well by getting rid of the unequal bargaining power.

Furthermore, recent evidence has found that, next to the long and unsociable hours and poor working conditions, half of the care-workers in England – about 500,000 people – are paid a wage below the Real Living Wage. More importantly, care-workers perform many additional practices and labour that is not paid and, thus, remains unnoticed by the Marxist account of exploitation due to the absence of any monetary character. Care-workers work long hours, get low wages, work in bad working conditions, are less protected by social security, etc.

Why more valuable?

Care-work is fundamentally vital as the economy and society without care-work cannot function proficiently. For example, without care, children will not grow up into healthy and happy adults, or the recovery of sick people might be compromised. In this sense, care-work is directly interconnected with society's well-functioning and the economic growth since well-cared for people can more effectively contribute to the economy. Nevertheless, despite social and human capital creation, its undervaluation perseveres.

To value care-work in a non-exploitative way, we should not value care-work in the same manner as work in other labour markets. If we base ourselves merely on the exchange value of care-work, the presence of exploitation is unacknowledged, given that the surplus-value remains unnoticed. That is to say, the low wage of a care-worker is, partly, caused by the dominating presence of women in the care sector. Furthermore, the underlying assumption that one does not need a set of high skills16 to perform care-work sets the minimum wage for care-work equivalent to that for unskilled workers. (ILO, 2010, para 63).17

Nevertheless, the real economic value is greater than their wage. The value the care-worker produces is greater than the value she/he receives; thus she/he is exploited. Especially, the exchange value of care- work would be worth nearly 11 trillion US dollars globally, while its real value is much greater.18

Namely, the following reasons call attention to the economic value creation excluded by the Marxist theory of exploitation and enable to estimate care-work’ real value. First, the creation of care-work leads to extra jobs and decreases unemployment. Secondly, looking at the degree of reliance of households on domestic work, care-worker free up women to engage in paid work elsewhere. These approaches result in monetary measures, but these go further than the labourer’s relationship to production and are thus not part of the Marxist exploitation analysis.

Section 2: Exploitation Through the Production and Reproduction of the Labour Force

Equally important, women’s exploitation is not limited to unpaid and underpaid care-work such as the production of food, clothing, shelter, and the tools necessary for that production. Women are also responsible for the production of human beings, the propagation of the human species.19 Feminists argued that capitalism has other “insolvencies”, such as the reproduction of labour.20 They have been looking for a way to incorporate the labour of production and reproduction of what Engels called “human beings themselves” into the Marxian equation.21 That is to say, women produce the most valuable of all commodities: “labour-power”, whereas capital actively devalues this work of “people-making”.

As mentioned previously, in the case of economic exploitation, one is exploited when one produces more value than the value one actually receives. In the case of the production of labour-force, exploitation remains invisible. On the side of remaining unnoticed by the Marxist account of exploitation, this form of exploitation does not even seem to exist for the general public. The underlying reason behind this ignorance is the view of pregnancy as a natural attribute of women. In other words, as if child-care is primarily a mother’s task. Carrying an unborn labour-force is considered an act of love that women perform since it is “contemplated” to come naturally. Thus, the naturalisation marginalizes this type of labour.22

On the other hand, growing an entire human in one’s body from start to birth is physically and psychologically demanding. A recent study has found out that pregnant women consume almost continuously as much energy as endurance athletes. The study discovered that the maximum energy expenditure among endurance athletes was by a small margin higher than women's metabolic rates during pregnancy.23

Consequently, it is objectively true that pregnancy is high energy demanding labour. The unborn child's carrier must put a considerable amount of energy into the “production” of the future labour-force.

Earlier said, one talks about exploitation once the worker receives less than the value their labour has added to the commodity. On the one hand, one can object that it is ethically problematic to speak of a child as a commodity. On the other hand, should we then accept a woman to be treated as a means of production? The vagueness of Marxist exploitation theory is unable to capture this form of exploitation. In Marx’s opinion, capitalism is immoral since this system allows capitalists to exploit workers by making labourers produce more than they receive and extract the surplus for their own gain. Broadening this definition beyond the labour market, one can see women as the labourers serving the production of future labour-force.

On the contrary, this type of labour performed by women has not been given value because it does not result in the production of commodities for a wage in a market. Except, the child will be part of the future labour force creating economic value.

Nevertheless, Marxist account of exploitation and society remain blind to this form of exploitation. Instead of finding ways to recognise the value of her labour, she faces different types of disadvantages. In the first place, there are different types of discrimination towards pregnant women, which still happen despite being illegal. More specifically, the refusal to hire a pregnant woman – or a woman planning to become pregnant (In some cases, a woman is asked about her childbearing plans during a job interview), firing a woman because she announced her pregnancy, the unavailability to pump breast milk (in some circumstances, women are fired for breast milk pumping at work, and not considered for a promotion because it’s assumed that she will not be as committed to her new position once given birth.) Additionally, once given birth, it is hard for women to reclaim their full-time employment. She is more likely to take up part-time work, which is low paid or below her skill level, in order to take care of their family.24 Instead, she might take up a zero-hours contract or flexible contract in exchange for the flexibility required to care for her children.

Furthermore, the disadvantages of motherhood are not only present during pregnancy but remain present once she has given birth. Data shows that the pay gap between mothers and married men in the US is three times larger than the pay gap between men and women without children.25 The latter indicates again that women are more often penalised as opposed to being of valued for carrying an unborn child. Inasmuch as she is producing and reproducing labour force, keeping the society and economy running in the long term, she is penalised for doing so regarding capitalism’s short term vision.

Section 3: Exploitation Through Affective Labour

As a third case, we consider affective labour. Affective labour is work which is carried out intending to produce or modify emotional experiences in people. This type of labour can be part of a job description, e.g., flight attendant, and is commonly associated with women. The origin of these common expectations is found in the naturalisation of gendered performances. The additional bodywork such as being friendly, compliant, look pretty and wear make-up, and present herself in a certain way is naturalised – as being equated with what women are, by nature, rather than additional practices.26

To clarify, affective labour produces value for which women are not compensated appropriately, despite the higher workload. Subsequentially, this leads to another form of exploitation which is harder to perceive because of the naturalisation. In other words, the Marxist account of exploitation overlooks what happens in cases where the goods are inherently non-commodifiable. Being a woman demands additional forms of labour which are often invisible while still generating value. Especially, these practices create value for their bosses, colleagues, and clients.

To give a clearer idea of this form of exploitation, I will illustrate the value creation of women active in the bar industry.27 A woman working in a bar has to do more than serving the clients. She has to ensure a good atmosphere during a shift and create a fun, pleasure, and sexy ‘vibe’ with clients. She is required to generate both a positive and pleasurable feeling in her interactions with others. Moreover, the female bartender produces value through practices which please the clients, colleagues, and bosses. She not only has to focus on pouring drinks and talking to clients, but she also has to monitor her embodied and affective responses to particular men (avoiding harassment or keeping them pleased).28 Lastly, young women describe “their looks” as an important factor in their work and as something which is openly discussed by managers and among workers.29 These additional practices make clients come back, which raises the bar’s turnover while the female bartender does not necessarily see her wage go up.

In short, looks and behaviour play an integral role in customer experience in service work, where women create more value for free. Correspondingly, making this form of exploitation visible requires studying the actual working practices which comprise affective labour. By ignoring the additional practices by naturalisation, one will not discover the exploitation of women through affective labour.

CONCLUSION

We need a theory of exploitation which has a broader focus on the gender division of labour. A theory which not only seeks to explain value surplus on the labour markets, but which includes the labour half which is found outside the labour market setting. By and large, the traditional Marxist theories on exploitation are nowadays irrelevant, identifying exploitation too narrowly. The specific narrow- mindedness of many Marxist account excludes that labour, performed by a considerable part of women, which does not involve a labour market transaction. Specific modes of production, often executed by women, remain hidden while being susceptible to exploitation. I point to place a heavy emphasis on giving value to women’s labour, which can be domestic, affective, care or labour of (re)production, and how these different forms of labour can be identified without the mediation of money or the market. In the paper, I described how four forms of exploitation are unexposed by the traditional Marxist account of exploitation. Within each section, the form of exploitation was explained, and the way in which it remains unnoticed was elaborated upon. We can conclude that the difficulty resides in the undervaluation and the marginalisation of different forms of labour commonly performed by women, such as domestic and care-work, or women-specific labour, i.e., the labour force (re)production and the additional affective labour upon their formal labour.

Notes

Costa, D. (n.d.). Emotional Labour : A Case of Gender Specific Exploitation. 1972, 1–28.

The private sphere is the domain where one works for oneself without any intermediate production and tends to be defined as the “women’s place”. It is separated from the rest of society and is the realm of domestic life, housekeeping and childcare. The public sphere on the other hand, is that of adult males, it is the domain of paid work, commerce, and law.

Müller, M. (2019). Emotional labour: a case of gender-specific exploitation. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 22:7, 841-862.

Young, I.M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press. (p50)

Varia, N. (2016). This is How Women are Exploited in Today’s Global Workforce. World Economic Forum.

Young, I.M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press.

Duignan, B. (2011). Thinkers and Theories in Ethics (Britannica Guide to Ethics). Rosen Education Service 96.

Ferguson A., Hennessy, R. (2010). Feminist perspectives on class and work. Stanford Uni (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Marxism, Feminism &Women’s Liberation.

Dhar, D. (2020). Women’s unpaid care work has been unmeasured and undervalued for too long. King’s college London.

John, M. (2017). The Woman Question: Reflections on Feminism and Marxism. Economic & Political WEEKLY.

Varia, N. (2016). This is How Women are Exploited in Today’s Global Workforce. World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum

Varia, N. (2016). This is How Women are Exploited in Today’s Global Workforce. World Economic Forum.

(2018). Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work. International Labour Organization.

Care work is downgraded as a “low-skilled” job, even though it demands a high level of diverse skills. Care workers are required to take care for vulnerable people and to provide compassion, and are demanded emotional labour.

Budlender, D. (2011). Measuring the economic and social value of domestic work. Domestic Work Policy Brief 1(3), 1–8.

(2021). Not all gaps are created equal: the true value of care work | Oxfam International.

Dixon, M. (1977). On the Super-Exploitation of Women. Marxists Internet Archive 1(3).

Collins, J. L. (2016). Expanding the labor theory of value Dialectical Anthropology 40(2), 103–123.

Ibid.

With marginalisation is meant: treating the production and reproduction of labour force as something unimportant.

Salihu, H. M., Myers, J., & August, E. M. (2012). Pregnancy in the workplace. Occupational medicine (Oxford, England) 62(2), 88–97.

(2017). Women workers and exploitation: the gender pay gap is just the beginning. Focus on Labour Exploitation.

[In the U.S. childless women (married and unmarried) earn 93 cents on a childless man’s dollar, but among full-time workers, married mothers with at least one child under age 18 earn 76 cents on a married father’s dollar.] Elson, D. (2017). Recognize, Reduce, redistribute Unpaid Care Work: How to close the Gender gap. New Labour Forum.

(2017). Women workers and exploitation: the gender pay gap is just the beginning. Focus on Labour Exploitation.

This form of exploitation is not limited to the bar industry, it is present in the health care or social assistance sector..

Coffey, J., Farrugia, D., Adkins, L., & Threadgold, S. (2018) Gender, Sexuality, and Risk in the Practice of Affective Labour for Young Women in Bar Work Sociological Research Online, 23(4), 728-743.

Farrugia, D. (2017). Youthfulness and immaterial labour in the new economy. The Sociological Review. 66(3): 511–526.

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