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The 'Time-Poverty' deception

Terms like ‘time-poverty’ when undisguised reveal themselves as nothing but plain, old poverty.

Credit : Indie Journal


| Rugveda Sawant |


“In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour-time.”

- Karl Marx

There is a considerable amount of literature on 'time-poverty' concocted by researchers and policy-makers. The term is used to denote the lack of time an individual experiences to devote to personal and social activities which ends up negatively impacting their well-being.

Apart from the already established definition of the term, a fresh deconstruction of it may lead one to observe that if poverty is understood as a lack of (financial) resources, time-poverty may be understood as a lack of (financial) resources to purchase time rather than lack of time itself. The worker, who does not own any means of production and has nothing but his labour-power to sell in order to sustain himself, must do so by lending it out for a certain duration of time to the capitalist who purchases it in order to extract surplus value. However, it becomes important to note that what is being sold and purchased here is not time, but labour-power.

Time is not a commodity - it can be a measure of value but has no value in itself; it cannot be produced or purchased. Defining 'time-poverty' as 'lack of time' helps mask this simple contradiction. We are stuck with a term that fails to delineate the exact relationship between time and poverty, leading to the proposal of flawed solutions for a legitimate issue.

Even though a more liberal understanding is that people, no matter what their financial status, can experience 'time-poverty', a more sophisticated argument observes that it is an issue more relevant to and persistent amongst the income-poor. To avoid ambiguity, let us replace 'poor' with the working class and 'rich' with the capitalist class. The working class earns its money through ‘wages’ while the capitalist class earns it through ‘profits’. The following illustration by Engels will help us understand how ‘wages’ and ‘profits’ are earned:

“The capitalist takes the labourer into his workshop or factory, where all the articles required for the work can be found – raw materials, auxiliary materials (coal, dyestuffs, etc.), tools and machines. Here, the worker begins to work. His daily wages are, as above, 3 shillings, and it makes no difference whether he earns them as day-wages or piece-wages. We again assume that in 12 hours the worker adds by his labour a new value of 6 shillings to the value of the raw materials consumed, which new value the capitalist realises by the sale of the finished piece of work. Out of this new value, he pays the worker his 3 shillings, and the remaining 3 shillings he keeps for himself. If, now, the labourer creates in 12 hours a value of 6 shillings, in 6 hours he creates a value of 3 shillings. Consequently, after working 6 hours for the capitalist, the labourer has returned to him the equivalent of the 3 shillings received as wages. After 6 hours’ work, both are quits, neither one owing a penny to the other.

“Hold on there!” now cries out the capitalist. “I have hired the labourer for a whole day, for 12 hours. But 6 hours are only half-a-day. So work along lively there until the other 6 hours are at an end – only then will we be even.” And, in fact, the labourer has to submit to the conditions of the contract upon which he entered of “his own free will", and according to which he bound himself to work 12 whole hours for a product of labour which cost only 6 hours’ labour.

Similarly with piece-wages. Let us suppose that in 12 hours our worker makes 12 commodities. Each of these costs a shilling in raw materials and wear-and-tear, and is sold for 2.5 shillings. On our former assumption, the capitalist gives the labourer .25 of a shilling for each piece, which makes a total of 3 shillings for 12 pieces. To earn this, the worker requires 12 hours. The capitalist receives 30 shillings for the 12 pieces; deducting 24 shillings for raw materials and wear-and-tear, there remains 6 shillings, of which he pays 3 shillings in wages and pockets the remaining 3. Just as before! Here, also, the worker labours 6 hours for himself – i.e., to replace his wages (half-an-hour in each of the 12 hours), and 6 hours for the capitalist.” (Frederick Engels, Wage Labour and Capital, 1891)

Profits are earned by appropriating unpaid labour of the working class. Profit constitutes the amount of time that the worker has spent producing value that does not belong to him. The magnitude of profits can be increased by increasing the intensity of labour, the productiveness of the labour or by increasing the length of the working day. But no matter how these three variables shift, (relative) wages and profits remain in inverse proportion to each other, lower the wages, more the profit. More the labour-time that remains unpaid, more the capitalist gains.



Once this is clear, one can start to see how 'lack of time' that one class of society faces is a gain for the other. The issue of 'lack of time' devoid of class analysis leads to vague rhetorics and empty solutions. All sincere critique must elucidate how the 'lack of time' that the 'poor' face and which affects their 'well-being' is an inevitability under capitalist production.

It is argued that women are the most 'time-poor' since they are the ones who usually perform domestic and household work which (widely) remains unrecognised and unpaid. The burden of performing these tasks leaves them with very little time for themselves. Recognition, remuneration and provision of alternative arrangements of such work will lead to diminution of the time deficit that women face. Researchers by employing the methodology of time-use surveys have made proclamations like “rich women work harder than poor men”. Such statements are as contrived as the terms ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are abstruse. Women unarguably are burdened with domestic and household work, which to a very large extent remains gendered. However the premise that it is ‘unpaid’ is false. Even though this work may not be remunerated directly, it is accounted for in the wages earned by the worker:

“The manufacturer who calculates his cost of production and, in accordance with it, the price of the product, takes into account the wear and tear of the instruments of labour… In the same manner, the cost of production of simple labour-power must include the cost of propagation, by means of which the race of workers is enabled to multiply itself, and to replace worn-out workers with new ones. The wear and tear of the worker, therefore, is calculated in the same manner as the wear and tear of the machine.

Thus, the cost of production of simple labour-power amounts to the cost of the existence and propagation of the worker. The price of this cost of existence and propagation constitutes wages. The wages thus determined are called the minimum of wages. This minimum wage, like the determination of the price of commodities in general by cost of production, does not hold good for the single individual, but only for the race. Individual workers, indeed, millions of workers, do not receive enough to be able to exist and to propagate themselves; but the wages of the whole working class adjust themselves, within the limits of their fluctuations, to this minimum.” (Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, 1847)  

Therefore, even if household and domestic work was to be paid for separately, it would lead to a relative decrease in wages, not leading to any sort of substantive improvement in the life of the working class. The gendered nature of the oppressive burden of household work can be understood as an effect of the patriarchal system, but the cause of it lies in the exploitative nature of class relations under capitalism. The patriarchal system itself, at the outset, is a result of the historical division of labour within a class society. The condition of women being domestic slaves to their husbands will not be made better, in any real sense, by demanding for household work to be remunerated.

According to the calculations of the capitalist, it is already recognised and paid for in the wages of the worker. As explained above, the impoverished status of the working class is directly linked to the prosperity of the capitalist. Therefore, any demands for alternative arrangement or socialisation of domestic work that might emancipate women from their current state of slavery and proposals about providing free goods and services via public policy, remain incompatible with and a utopia under the capitalist mode of production.

The burden of ‘unpaid work’ that leads individuals to face a ‘lack of time’ is a legitimate issue. However, it cannot be understood in isolation from the process of production of which it is a part. Marx writes:

“All the slave’s labour appears as unpaid labour. In wage labour, on the contrary, even surplus-labour, or unpaid labour, appears as paid. There the property-relation conceals the labour of the slave for himself; here the money-relation conceals the unrequited labour of the wage labourer.” (Karl Marx, Vol 1., Capital, 1887)

It is this very phenomenon that can so easily lead one to think of household work (domestic slavery of women) as unpaid while overlooking the exploitative nature of class relations within the capitalist mode of production. The concept of ‘time-poverty’, which wrongly posits time as a commodity, furthers the concealment of the worker’s unpaid labour. The worker appears to be selling his time and not the value creating source that is his labour-power. It becomes easier then, for the price of this ‘time’ to be detached from and determined independently of the value created by him.

In the process of value formation which is constantly evolving due to changes in the production sphere, time has to be looked at as a measure of value and labour as its source of creation. One cannot be ‘time-poor’ (since time is not a commodity), but the people who are impoverished are so because their labour-time remains unpaid.

The working class spends most of their life (time) reproducing bare essential material means of existence for themselves and extravagant material wealth for capitalists. While the workers expend their time and energy creating value for the capitalist to trade and make surplus, the capitalist and his ilk can devote their time and energy for reconsolidation of the status quo. The worker works for both him and the capitalist owner, whilst the capitalist leisures only for himself.

The condition of workers being overworked and underpaid is interrelated. Terms like ‘time-poverty’ when undisguised reveal themselves as nothing but plain, old poverty. Averse to the dilution and deviation that this term begets, one must not lose sight of the fact that the fight for personal and leisure time is inextricably tied with the fight for socialism.



1. “...time-poverty among the better off accounts for very little of the total, and that genuine time poverty is more than a qualitative loss resulting from individual choices. Rather, most people who are time-poor are also income-poor and suffer from other (often multiple) deprivations.” Ghosh, “Time Poverty and the Poverty of Economics,” 2.

2. “The share of (profit) increases in the same proportion in which the share of labour (wages) falls, and vice versa. Profit rises in the same degree in which wages fall; it falls in the same degree in which wages rise.” Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, 37.

3. “Though it is difficult to say how much leisure or free time a person needs, one can say that a person who does not get enough leisure is under time stress.” Hirway, Understanding Poverty, 28.

4. “Capitalist production, therefore, of itself reproduces the separation between labour-power and the means of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the condition for exploiting the labourer. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour-power in order that he may enrich himself.” Marx, Vol. 1. Capital, 406.

5. Ultra-poor women rank at the bottom in terms of burden of total work. They spend 32.74 per cent of their total time (53.42 hours) on work. They are followed by non-poor women (and not by ultra-poor men) who spend 31.66 per cent of their time (53.18 hours) on work. That is, rich women work much harder than ultra-poor men in terms of the time put into work. Hirway, Understanding Poverty, 35. Also quoted by Jayati Ghosh in “Time poverty and the poverty of economics” with an addition that “This partly reflects the lack of paid work for poor men as well as the greater burden of unpaid work borne by women in their own households.”

6. “Payment for the housewife’s “reproductive labour” in the house, i.e. for domestic slavery, in addition to keeping the working family’s standard of living the same, and consequently the level of the housewife’s freedom on the same level as before, is something that would serve to perpetuate the idea of the housewife as the beast of burden that bears on her back all the social pressure exerted on working-class homes (including psychological and physical abuse). It would keep her away from social life, imprisoned within the four walls of her house, making her numb with chores that mangle her body and dull her mind.” Rey, Is housework an “unpaid” job?