Exploitation of labour is a concept defined as, in its broadest sense, one agent taking unfair advantage of another agent.[1] It denotes an unjust social relationship based on an asymmetry of power between workers and their employers. When speaking about exploitation, there is a direct affiliation with consumption in social theory and traditionally this would label exploitation as unfairly taking advantage of another person because of their inferior position, giving the exploiter the power.[2]

Karl Marx‘s theory of exploitation has been described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as the most influential theory of exploitation.

[1] In analyzing exploitation, economists are split on the explanation of the exploitation of labour given by Marx and Adam Smith. Smith did not see exploitation as an inherent systematic phenomenon in specific economic systems as Marx did, but rather as an optional moral injustice.[3]


Marx’s exploitation theory is one of the major elements analyzed in Marxian economics and some social theorists consider it to be a cornerstone in Marxist thought. Marx credited the Scottish Enlightenment writers for originally propounding a materialist interpretation of history.[4] In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx set principles that were to govern the distribution of welfare under socialism and communism—these principles saw distribution to each person according to their work and needs. Exploitation is when these two principles are not met, when the agents are not receiving according to their work or needs.[5] This process of exploitation is a part of the redistribution of labour, occurring during the process of separate agents exchanging their current productive labour for social labour set in goods received

.[6] The labour put forth toward production is embodied in the goods and exploitation occurs when someone purchases a good, with their revenue or wages, for an amount unequal to the total labour he or she has put forth.

[7] This labour performed by a population over a certain time period is equal to the labour embodied to the goods that make up the net national product (NNP). The NNP is then parceled out to the members of the population in some way and this is what creates the two groups, or agents, involved in the exchange of goods: exploiters and exploited.[6]