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23rd, February, 2013


The use of division of labour in factories and work places has been a controversial issue since the historical times. While some managers have considered this an effective way of increasing the productivity in their factories, different scholars have disputed division of labour, citing its negative effects it has on the workers involved. Division of labour is an approach used in completion of tasks. This normally involves the breaking down of a complex task, into many simpler tasks, which are then handled by different workers. These workers work on the parts of the task, which they are specialized in; as these are the tasks, they are assigned.

According to Sabel (1982), division of labour has both positive and negative influences on workers and factories. These effects are both social and economic in nature. The controversy surrounding division of labour in factories has however, been a historical issue. In this paper, I will focus on the works of different scholars, including Adam Smith, Frederick Taylor, Karl Marx, among many others, whose contributions to the concept of division of labour contributes to the controversial debate on the issue. I will compare and contrast their approaches used to address division of labour in factories, and its effects.

Adam Smith first used the term division of labour, in his work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. According to Adam Smith, division of labor is the process in industries, where the process of manufacturing in these industries is divided into simpler and specific operations that are assigned to particular workers or machines to handle. Smith supported the process of division of labour, citing that this process is capable of more productivity in a factory, compared to those factories that do not employ division of labour in their operations. He also attributes division of labour to the increase of judgment and skill level in workers (Smith 1976).

Although Adam Smith was not responsible for coining the term division of labour, or the first to address the concept, his ideas and thinking on the effects of division of labour had an impact on the other thinkers that came after him, including Karl Marx, and the other contemporary thinkers (Hill 2004). Different thinkers show different perceptions toward division of labour in factories. Some are positive about the process, while others are negative about it. Adam Smith was positive about division of labour in industries. However, he does not focus on the long-term effects of division of labour, as he bases his thinking on the short-term effects of this process, which mainly include personal autonomy and prosperity (Hill 2004). The contribution of Adam Smith to the effects of division of labour remains important today for a variety of reasons. The works of Adam Smith on division of labour mainly focused on the analysis of the benefits of this process, based on its approach of job specialization. Smith argued that division of labour was beneficiary to both factories and workers, as it led to interdependence and boosted independence of workers (Hill 2004).

On the specialization aspect of division of labour, Smith considered this to have grave effects on workers. Although specialization of work in division of labour serves to reduce the quantity of work a worker has to do, Smith identified other effects of specialization, which are detrimental to the worker as a person. First, he argued that when a worker is restricted to only particular aspects of a job, this also restricts their natural inventiveness, since they will not be inventive in other job areas, since they have been restricted to a particular area. Additionally, this impairs the worker’s physical capabilities (Smith 1976). Since a worker is limited to a specific duty, they will be unable to use their physical strength in performing different duties, since they are physically programmed to perform only specific duties. Smith also notes that, specialization through division of labour turned workers into automated machines, as like machines, they only have one line of duty to perform. Overall, the workers’ martial, intellectual, and social capabilities are constrained by the process of division of labour. Smith did not however, recommend any ways of improving this. This is because he believed that specialization was a natural process, which cannot be avoided by humans, but which humans can adapt to (Smith 1976: Hill 2004). This view contradicts Marx’s views on the same.

Smith (1976) also considered division of labour as responsible for propagating some degree of social inequality and exploitation at the work place. When masters are in disputes with their workers, the workers are the less advantaged in such situations. However, Smith believed that in specialization, workers had the opportunity to be their own bosses, therefore, also had the chance to leave work in the factories, and go establish their own factories. This was however, impractical. On the positive, Smith argued that division of labour benefited the system of commercialism, which provides freedom to all people in the society, including the factory workers and poor (Hill 2004). Therefore, Smith believed that anything that enriches a country is of benefit to the poor also. Therefore, since division of labour benefits a country’s system of commercialism, Smith considered it to be of essence in a country, despite the negative effects it has on workers (Lavezzi 2001). From his arguments, it is therefore, eminent that Smith disregards the negative impact of division of labour on individual workers, and views this as an inconvenience of the process, of which the benefits of the process outweighs them.

Karl Marx is popular today because of his ideas and theories, which have become revolutionary in the field of economics and other social sciences. Division labour is part of the production process in a factory. Karl Marx had considered the production process of capitalism to be the root of vast troubles in society. This was beneficial to the rich, and exploitative to the poor, who were also the workers. According to Marx, production in a civilized society ought to occur in a group of individuals, who are workers. These should be involved in the production process, and work on it in a collective manner, whereby they exchange ideas and activities in a mutual manner (Marx 1976). The production process should connect workers and help build relations within themselves. According to Karl Marx, this is part of nature, which should be experienced in the production process too. However, Marx considered the production process in the capitalistic system as dehumanizing and exploitative to the worker. This mainly led to alienation of the workers in society, as they had to work for long hours (Marx 1976: Cox 1998).

The division of labour in the production process of capitalistic systems, according to Karl Marx, did not favor the worker. First, Marx notes that this turned the workers into machine-like objects. This is a view that Marx shares with Smith. Additionally, the working conditions of factory workers during Marx’s era were pathetic. The environment was filthy, and workers were expected to work there for the longest hours (Ricoy 2001). Karl Marx was against division of labour in factories mainly because it did not allow for cooperation among the workers. This way, workers could not work as a group, with processes that are connected. Instead, workers were given particular tasks, which they had to work on individually. Marx thought that cooperation in the production process could result in higher productivity, since workers would take the shortest time possible to complete a task. Similarly, Marx agrees that if the labour process or a task is complicated, it is wise to apportion it into different operations, and these handed or assigned to individual workers. This also shortens the time needed to complete the task. Marx therefore, agrees that a positive factor of division of labour is that it increases productivity in the job (Marx 1976). This is the same factor on which Marx bases to criticize division of labour in factories. According to him, the capitalists, who owned factories, knew this fact about division of labour, that it increases productivity. Capitalists were mainly after making huge profits in their factories and businesses regardless of the working conditions of their workers. According to Karl Marx therefore, division of labour in factories was immoral. This is because the capitalists used this approach in their production process to increase productivity in their factories. They misused their workers, making them poorer, while they themselves grew richer. Despite workers engaging in division of labour, their wages were still low, with long working hours, and poor work environment, yet the factory owners benefited from these desperate situations of factory workers (Marx 1976). Marx and Smith’s views on division of labour exhibit considerable similarities, but overall, while Smith supports division of labour due to its capability of high productivity, Marx is objected to division of labour due to moral reasons, especially considering it is a capitalistic antic to make the poor poorer and fatten the capitalistic systems.

Frederick Taylor (1856-1917), was a political economist in the past, famous today for his work on, “The Principles of Scientific Management.” Here, he addressed aspects of division of labour, and its importance in a factory. Just like Adam Smith, Frederick Taylor exalts division of labour, claiming that this increases efficiency in the work place, as well as making maximum use of the skills and talents of workers. However, these theorists’ ideas are obsolete today, since most tasks in the contemporary world can rarely be split into various operations (Caldari 2007). Taylor was a great supporter of division of labour, and went ahead to advocate  for it. However, he believed that once part of a task is allocated to a worker, the worker must be informed beforehand. “The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work” (Taylor 1919, p. 72).

According to Taylor (1919), if division of labour and specialization is increased in a factory, the production process becomes efficient. He also argued that the processes of ensuring efficiency in production could be determined by analyzing the relationship between a task, and the individual worker. For instance, he believed that for more productivity, workers could use bigger shovels, so that they carry more sand (Taylor 1919). Taylor, in his principles of management, highly regarded supervision of the production process in the factory. He emphasized the need for managers to have written rules and procedures for different jobs, which workers should adhere to during the labour process (Taylor 1919). Managers to ensure workers are doing the right thing should do this together with supervision. Only through this could a manager be assured of efficiency in the production process. Additionally, Taylor identified the importance of motivation for workers, however, just like the workers’ wages, rewards and incentives are to be attached to a worker’s work output (Caldari 2007). Finally, Taylor argued that for a worker to be efficient in the work they are assigned, they should have the right skills and abilities to perform the role, in addition to being trained by their managers on how to handle the task in the most appropriate manner (Taylor 1919).

Generally, Taylor considered three most important elements in division of labour and production process. These include management and control, highly specialized jobs, and payment basing on work output (piecework). Scientific management was successful during Taylor’s era, and was adopted by most factories (Taylor 1919). However, soon its weaknesses had a toll on factories, leading to this approach to be ditched. Most critics of scientific management have argued that job specialization leads to monotony and repetitiveness in work, since a worker is presented with the same job procedures daily. This in turn lowers the morale of workers. In addition, this approach required workers to have limited skills, as they did not work on diverse jobs. This therefore, constrained workers’ intellectual capabilities (Caldari 2007). This approach by Taylor views human beings like machines. This does not consider the different needs of workers fully. Instead, the workers are regarded as people with financial needs, which they seek to fulfill. This is why they are paid basing on their work output, and motivation and incentives too based on their work output. Although money is important, Taylor has used it in this context to show that this can motivate workers, make them be satisfied with their jobs, and increase productivity at the work place. This has however, been proven to be wrong, and does not apply in today’s work place wholly. Therefore, although Taylor’s ideas of division of labour in his principles of management have the capability of increasing productivity, these do not put workers into consideration, but benefits the factory owners only. This becomes exploitative to workers (Caldari 2007).

Paul Mason in his book “Live Working or Die Fighting,” has addressed the various changes that the working class has undergone since the historical time up to the present. These have all been brought about by globalization (Mason 2008). By using case examples, he shows how workers in different eras, beginning from the factory workers in the industrial period, adapted to their work environments. These included revolts by workers, such as those in the silk industry in Lyon, France, to demand better salaries and better working conditions. Most recently, workers in Argentina have taken over their work places to avoid being laid-off (Mason 2008). As Smith had argued earlier, workers have the capacity of being their own bosses, if the production process of their factories does not consider them. These are some of the strategies, which workers, in the past and present have taken, to fight exploitative systems of production at their work places (Mason 2008). A similar case is with global bodies, such as, IMF, World Bank, and WTO, which according to Stiglitz (2002), have succeeded in exploiting the countries they serve. This is because of their lack of transparency and accountability. However, Stiglitz (2002) gives an example of China, which refused IMF funds, and South Korea and Malaysia, which showed great resistance to the conditions of IMF. These countries, especially China, compared to others under IMF, are showing great economic capabilities. Braverman (1974) blames the 20th Century worker for degrading their jobs. According to him, modern workers seem to have sold their labour powers to their managers. Today, the capitalist has been given total control and responsibility over the labour process. This is unlike the past, where workers would fight for their rights to be addressed, even though they were over-exploited (Braverman 1974). Braverman therefore, challenges the modern worker to rise up, and have a voice in the labour process, to avoid the growth of capitalism, which is detrimental to society.

Pollard (1965) notes that the labour process today has changed, and is different from the one in the historic time. This includes management of industries, as today; managers are more knowledgeable about the management system, compared to the past. Perrow (2002), on the other hand argues that today, capitalism has risen, as industrialists have utilized their powers to form bigger corporations. He traces this from the historic factory workers, where modern management roots. Perrow blames factory owners for playing political games, thus exploiting their workers, while they enriched themselves to enlarge their companies. From his argument, it is clear that Perrow is against division of labour, and especially how it was performed in the past in a manner to exploit factory workers.

In conclusion, division of labour is a practice that dates back to factories in historical times. By dividing a task into various operations, division of labour aimed at ensuring efficiency in the production process. This is not a bad thing, since production needs to be efficient. However, this process remains controversial, as different scholars of economics cannot agree or make a major stand, with regard to division of labour. This controversy emanates from the motives of factory owners and managers in introducing this process in their firms. Some scholars have linked division of labour as nurturing capitalism in society, because this leads to high productivity of companies, at the expense of the workers, who are exploited by their employers in terms of wages and poor work conditions. If this process would have been conducted fairly, giving workers their dues, there would not have been much controversy attached to it. However, one disadvantage that would have persisted is how this process limits the physical and intellectual capabilities of workers. Nonetheless, division of labour remains controversial today, even as capitalism continues to rise in society.


Works Cited

Braverman, H 1974, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth

Century, Monthly Review Press, New Jersey.

Caldari, K 2007, “Alfred Marshall’s Critical Analysis of Scientific Management,” Euro. J. History of Economic Thought 14:1 55 – 78 March 2007. Viewed 23 February 2013 <’s%20critical%20analysis%20of%20scientific%20management.pdf>

Cox, J 1998, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation, International Socialism, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain), Issue 79. Viewed 23 February 2013 <>

Hill, L 2004, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and the Division of Labour, School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide, Viewed 23 February 2013 <>

Lavezzi, A 2001, Division of Labor and Economic Growth: From Adam Smith to Paul Romer and Beyond. University of Pisa. Viewed 23 February 2013 <>

Marx, K 1976, Capital – A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1, Trans. Ben Fowkes, Penguin Books, London.

Mason, P 2008, Live Working, or Die Fighting: How the Working Class went Global, Vintage, New York.

Perrow, C 2002, Organizing America, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Pollard, S 1965, The Genesis of Modern Management – A Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, Edward Arnold Publishers, London.

Ricoy, C 2001, Marx on Division of Labour, Mechanization and Technical Progress. University of Santiago De Compostela. Viewed 23 February 2013 <>

Sabel, C 1982, Work and Politics: The Division of Labor in Industry, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Smith, A 1976, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, An Electronic Classics Series Publication, Viewed 23 February 2013 <>

Stiglitz, J 2002, Globalization and its Discontents, W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Taylor, F 1919, The Principles of Scientific Management, Harper and Brothers Publishers, London.


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