Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXV: WAGES OF HIRED LABORERS - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
XXV: WAGES OF HIRED LABORERS - Rev. Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters 
Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
WAGES OF HIRED LABORERS
Free labor in demandDespite the existence of slaves, who were for the most part domestic servants, there was considerable demand for free labor in ancient Babylonia. This is clear from the large number of contracts relating to hire which have come down to us. The variability of the terms agreed upon is witness for the existence of competition. As a rule, the man was hired for the harvest and was free directly after. But there are many examples in which the term of service was different—one month, half a year, or a whole year.
Slaves or dependants secured from ownersOne might hire labor from the master of a slave, or from the parents of a young man, not yet independent, and then the wages were small, a shekel or two. These wages were paid to the master or parents, not to the laborer himself.
Reapers for the harvest had half a shekel,1 or two shekels,2 each. The first may be the daily wages, the latter the price for a specific job. It is probable that the gur of corn for ten days also represents the wages for the whole period.3
Wages subject to adjustmentAverage wages have been estimated by Meissner4 to be six shekels per year, according to the Code, and some actual examples of contracts. But it was evidently a matter of agreement, for we have rates as low as four shekels and as high as eight. Usually the employer paid down a sum, for example, a shekel, as earnest-money; the rest was paid by a monthly or daily rate, or in a lump sum at the end of the term of service. Occasionally the wages might be paid down at the start, but this was rare and the amount less.
Often paid in produceVery frequently, of course, the wages were paid in corn instead of money. Many difficulties lie in the way of finding an equivalent of the shekel in corn. Harvest labor was probably far dearer than any other, because of its importance, the skill and exertion demanded, and the fact that so many were seeking for it at once. Further, after harvest, when the wages were paid, corn was at its lowest price. Meissner’s actual examples show that two hundred and fifty a might be accepted as yearly wages. We have such a variety of rates that it is difficult to draw any clear conclusion, but two young slaves at harvest could earn three hundred a, and for a whole year the wages might be over six hundred a, or even as much as three gur, or nine hundred a.1 The Code names ten a as daily wages. The average value of a gur of corn was a shekel, hence this gives a yearly rate of twelve shekels. In this case we may suppose that the laborer supported himself.
The labor duly guaranteedThe laborer had to be bound to perform his task. A penalty was attached to his failure to appear at the proper time, and guarantees were sometimes taken for his appearance. In other cases it is stipulated that the penalty for non-appearance shall be fixed by the king’s decision.2
Duration of service fixedIt was usual to name expressly the time of his commencing and leaving off his work. These clauses are incidentally of importance as fixing the names and sequence of the months at this period. Thus, from the example below we see that the month Tirinu preceded Elul.
Living usually includedOf course, the employer took all responsibility for the slave whom he hired. He fed and clothed him during his term of service. If he suffered any injury, the employer had to compensate the master. Occasionally the slave clothed himself,1 and then his wages were higher.
As an example we may take the following:2
Nâmir-nûrshu from Rutum, Rîsh-Shamash, son of Marduk-nâṣir, for wages, for one year, has hired. His wages for one year, twenty-four a of oil, he shall pay, and he shall clothe him. In Elul he shall enter, in Tirinu he shall leave. Two witnesses. Dated in the reign of ammurabi.
Assyrian contracts name both wages and time-limit of workIn the Assyrian times we have certain examples of advances of corn, or money, at harvest-time for the payment of reapers, which have already been noticed under loans.3 An advance of money and food to workmen may perhaps be put here. But it is also a contract to do work. It reads thus:
Shamash-bâni-aplu, Latubashâni, Ukîn-abîa, Au . . . in all four workmen. Two talents of bronze, three homers one še of cooked corn. On the tenth of the month they shall do the work. All the repairs and the beams they shall make fast. They shall fix the balks, and set up the roof. If the bricks are not sufficient . . . the month they do not give, they shall work and finish. Then follow seven witnesses. Dated on the sixth of some month, bc 734.
Unfortunately, parts of the tablet are injured and so the sense is not at all clear; but the workmen seem to have had four days in which to do the work. The price offered was considerable.
In later Babylonian times we do not obtain much further information. Here is a good example:4
From the twentieth of Nisan to the tenth of Ab, Zamama-iddin, son of Shamash-uballiṭ, son of the smith, shall be at the disposal of Nabû-usallim, son of Limnîa, and he shall pay him as his wages ten shekels of silver. He shall pay half the wages in Nisan and the rest in Tammuz. Whoever breaks the contract shall pay five shekels of silver.
The hire is nearly thirty shekels a year, as in the next example:1
Bultâ, son of abaṣiru, son of the oxherd, has put himself in the hands of Marduk-nâṣir-apli, son of Itti-Marduk-balâṭu, son of Egibi, for wages of half a mina of silver for one year. From the first of Sebat shall Bultâ be at the disposal of Marduk-nâṣir-apli. Bultâ has received one-third of a mina of silver from Marduk-nâṣir-apli.
[1 ] 327.
[2 ] 2425.
[3 ] M. A. P., 57.
[4 ] A. P., 10.
[1 ] S. 61.
[2 ] 2455.
[1 ] 938.
[2 ] 1137.
[3 ] Page 251.
[4 ] Nbn. 210.
[1 ] 215.