Piece work

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Piece work (or piecework) is any type of employment in which a worker is paid a fixed piece rate for each unit produced or action performed[1] regardless of time.


When paying a worker, there are five methods that can be used: paid by the hour (known as ‘time work’); paid an annual salary, under a contract for a basic number of hours each year (known as ‘salaried hours’); paid by the piece – the number of things they make, or tasks they complete (known as ‘output work’); paid in other ways (known as ‘unmeasured work’[a]).[3] Piece work originated in the putting out system, and remains a valid way of paying workers subject to certain restrictions.

Under UK law, piece workers must be paid either at least the minimum wage for every hour worked or on the basis of a ‘fair rate’ for each task or piece of work they do. Output work can only be used in limited situations when the employer doesn’t know which hours the worker does (e.g. some home workers). If an employer sets the working hours and the workers have to clock in and out, this counts as time work, not as output work.

The fair rate is the amount that allows an average worker to be paid the minimum wage per hour if they work at an average rate. This must be calculated in a set way, a control trial is run to determine the average items produced by equivalent workers, this is divided by 1.2 to reach the agreed average figure, and the fair rate is set to ensure each worker achieves the minimum wage.[4] [b]

In a manufacturing setting, the output of piece work can be measured by the number of physical items (pieces) produced, such as when a garment worker is paid per operational step completed, regardless of the time required. If quality is equal, piece rate rewards the more productive worker and offers less to those less productive.[citation needed] In this regard, it is a good example of free market economics.[dubious ] If everyone is paid the same regardless of output, some contend there is little motivation to produce at a high level beyond the natural work ethic of that individual. An advantage for the company is that this method of payment helps to guarantee the costs per unit produced, which is useful for planning and forecasting purposes.[citation needed]

In a service setting, the output of piece work can be measured by the number of operations completed, as when a telemarketer is paid by the number of calls made or completed, regardless of the outcome of the calls (pay for only certain positive outcomes is more likely to be called a sales commission or incentive pay).[citation needed] Crowdsourcing systems such as Mechanical Turk involve minute information-processing tasks (such as identifying photos or recognizing signatures) for which workers are compensated on a per-task basis.[citation needed]


Guild system[edit]

As a term and as a common form of labor, 'piece work' had its origins in the guild system of work during the Commercial Revolution[dubious ] and before the Industrial Revolution.[citation needed] Since the phrase 'piece work' first appears in writing around the year 1549, it is likely that at about this time, the master craftsmen of the guild system began to assign their apprentices work on pieces which could be performed at home, rather than within the master's workshop.[citation needed] In the English system of manufacturing, workers mass-produced parts from a fixed design as part of a division of labor, but did not have the advantage of machine tools or metalworking jigs.[citation needed]Simply counting the number of pieces produced by a worker was likely easier than accounting for that worker's time, as would have been required for the computation of an hourly wage.[dubious ]

The Industrial Revolution[edit]

Piece work took on new importance with the advent of machine tools, such as the machine lathe in 1751.[citation needed] Machine tools made possible by the American system of manufacturing (attributed to Eli Whitney) in 1799 in which workers could truly make just a single part—but make many copies of it—for later assembly by others.[citation needed] The reality of the earlier English System had been that handcrafted pieces rarely fit together on the first try, and a single artisan was ultimately required to rework all parts of a finished good.[dubious ][citation needed] By the early 19th century, the accuracy of machine tools meant that piecework parts were produced fully ready for final assembly. This led to the idea of interchangeable parts[citation needed]


In the mid-19th century, the practice of distributing garment assembly among lower-skilled and lower-paid workers came to be known in Britain as the sweating system[citation needed] and arose at about the same time that a practical (foot-powered) sewing machine, was developed.[citation needed]Factories that collected sweating system workers at a single location, working at individual machines, and being paid piece rates became pejoratively known as sweatshops.[citation needed]

Today, piece work and sweatshops remain closely linked conceptually, even though each has continued to develop separately.[citation needed] Factories today may receive the label "sweatshop" more because they have the long hours and poor working conditions, even if they pay an hourly or daily wage instead of a piece rate.[citation needed] Meanwhile, piece work in a service economy, such as being a telemarketer paid per-call, may actually afford a work environment which compares favorably to other available work.[citation needed] Piece work was adopted in some English farming communities to dramatically improve living standards during the economic depression of the mid-1930s.[citation needed]

Piece Work Pay and Minimum Wage[edit]

In the United States the Fair Standard Labor Act requires that all employees, including piece work workers, earn at least the minimum Wage. In calculating an appropriate piece work rate, employers must keep track of average productivity rates for specific activities and set a piece work rate that ensures that all workers are able to earn minimum wage.[5] If a worker earns less than the minimum wage, the employer has to pay the difference. Exceptions to this rule include instances where: (i) the worker is a family member of the employer; (ii) If in any calendar quarter of the preceding year there were fewer than 500 one-hour work days; (iii) In agricultural businesses, if a worker primarily takes care of livestock on the range; (iv) If non-local hand-harvesting workers are under 16, are employed on the same farm as their parent, and receive he piece work rate for those over 16.[6]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Paid in other ways (unmeasured work):If the work isn’t covered by any of the other types of work, it’s ‘unmeasured work’. Unmeasured work includes being paid a set amount to do a particular task, e.g. being paid £500 to lay a patio, regardless of how long it takes. To work out the minimum wage for unmeasured work, either every hour worked must be recorded to make sure the worker gets the minimum wage, a ‘daily average agreement of hours’ is agreed.[2]
  2. ^ Example: Workers are paid for each shirt they make. They can produce on average 12 shirts per hour. This number is divided by 1.2 to make 10. Andy is 21 and is eligible for the minimum wage rate of £6.19. This means he must be paid at least 62p per shirt he makes (£6.19 divided by 10, rounded up).[4]


  1. ^ "The piece work principle in agriculture". Journal of the Statistical Society of London 28: 29–31. 1865. 
  2. ^ "Minimum wage for different types of work". HMG :Published under Open Government licence. 2013. Retrieved 8 June 2013. 
  3. ^ "Minimum wage for different types of work". HMG :Published under Open Government licence. 2013. Retrieved 8 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "Paid per task or piece of work done". HMG :Published under Open Government licence. 2013. Retrieved 8 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Colacicco, Linda. "Key Things Every Farmer Should Know About Piecework Pay". Abacus Payroll. Abacus Payroll. Retrieved 21 April 2015. 
  6. ^ "Fact Sheet #12: Agricultural Employers Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)". US Department of Labor. US Department of Labor. Retrieved 21 April 2015. 


  • Chapman, Sydney J (1904). The Lancashire Cotton Industry- A Study in Economic Development (Reprints of Economic Classics- 1973 Augustus M Kelley ed.). Manchester: At the University Press. p. 309. ISBN 0-678-00896-5. 

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