Academic journal article Social Justice

How Employers Steal from Employees: The Untold Story

Academic journal article Social Justice

How Employers Steal from Employees: The Untold Story

Article excerpt


This article critically examines wage theft by employers from employees. In addition to documenting how wage theft disproportionately affects marginalized workers, the article reveals how seldom these offenses are recognized as crimes and documents the normalization of wage theft through the neoliberal rhetoric that renders it unseen. Overall, we argue that wage theft extends far beyond the intentional, overt nonpayment of wages by atypical employers and encompasses many more insidious forms of stealing workers' time and wages. The article concludes with suggestions for approaching wage theft as an opportunity to actively resist neoliberal morality in all its (dis)guises.


I work for a financial firm, in a management position in the technology department. We are all expected to attend many "mandatory fun" events after work--for colleagues visiting from overseas, holiday gatherings or even for our higher-ups wanting to celebrate their promotions.... a small group of us managers is "invited" to help pay the costs for all others attending. This can mean shelling out $50 to $200 a shot ... once or twice a month.

--Rob Walker, The New York Times, April 3, 2016

Fully 64% of low wage workers have some amount of pay stolen out of their paychecks by their employer every week.... The average low wage worker loses ... $2,634 per year in unpaid wages ... 15% of their earned income.

--Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Labor, November 26, 2013

THESE QUOTATIONS ILLUSTRATE TWOKINDSOFWAGE/TIMETHEFT by employers, the appropriation of employees' off-duty time ("mandatory fun events") and their earned income. The goal of this article is to document--and problematize--these oppressive practices inflicted by the employer class on the employed. We have, therefore, an ideological and a practical agenda. The oppression of employees by employers has a long history in critical literatures, from Marx's Capital to feminist analyses of the unpaid emotional labor required by gendered jobs (Hochschild 1997,2000) to the demands of Disney World employees that they be reimbursed for the one to two hours (per shift) required to become Mickey Mouse or Snow White (Simpson 2017).The exploitation of workers, legally and extralegally, in the Global North and the Global South, has always been integral to capitalism. As the uneven distribution of wealth generated by unpaid labor and the appropriation of the means of production by monopoly capitalism have increased under neoliberalism, these forces have produced new populist, authoritarian politicians promising remedies that, as in Trump's United States, exacerbate rather than counter the power of capital.

We wish to draw attention here to the recent normalization of levels of exploitation that would not have been possible in earlier periods. In some nation-states (in Scandinavia, for example) and historical periods (the 1960s, for instance, when unions were strong), this is because capital lacked the political, cultural, and/or legal permission to tighten the screws on the employee class beyond a certain point; in others (the United States and Britain from 1980 on), the capitalist class was limited by the paucity and expense of available disciplinary tools. However, as neoliberal philosophies and regimes gained ever more power, through globalized trade deals, international organizations such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), and the allied dismantling of welfare states, capital's ability to monetize and colonize time and space and persuade people that this was necessary and right has continually increased. In this respect, neoliberalism contains a distinctively moral character aimed at transforming society's views and expectations of free markets and the role of corporations therein, redefining these spaces as inherently good and naturally beneficial for the entire social formation (Tombs 2016). This is the normalization we wish to discuss through wage/time theft. …

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