How Employers Steal from Employees: The Untold Story.

Author:Bittle, Steven


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.

For this reason, our article will label as crimes the massive social harms resulting from the widespread appropriation by employers of employees'wages and time, even though few jurisdictions have passed criminal laws against them (and fewer still have seriously enforced them). Calling something criminal is one of the most effective tools in the arsenal of moral entrepreneurs and activists across the political spectrum. To single out, name, blame, and shame a particular phenomenon creates a stigma of criminality, which has great cultural power. It has been used to great effect by employers in their battle to normalize increased levels of exploitation. This article attempts to turn the tables and shift the spotlight back where, in our judgment, it should be, on those who inflict the most serious and ubiquitous social harm. In so doing, we are not advocating more criminalization per se--an approach we acknowledge as inherently damaging for those caught up in the criminal justice web (1)--but instead arguing for holding capital and the state to account on their own terms, challenging them to respect the very legal rules and principles they claim as sacrosanct.

As we shall see, much of the focus on employer theft today (particularly by the employer class) depicts it as a product of the free market, a largely unintentional, unavoidable, and definitely noncriminal by-product of employment relationships within globalized, austerity-driven capitalism. Dominant corporate, state, and academic discourses locate wage theft in sectors where marginalized, relatively powerless employees (youth, illegal immigrants), rogue employers, and seasonal employment coincide. However, conventionalizing it in such a narrow subset of employment relationships positions it as an anomalous rupture within an otherwise fair system of governance. This, we argue, totally misrepresents the employer-employee relationship of today. Instead, wage theft, in any number of guises, has become endemic across a wide swath of employment relationships. For this reason, what follows moves beyond strict legal categorizations of wage theft--"when an employer violates the law and deprives a worker of legally mandated wages" (Bobo 2009, 7)--to interrogate the wide-ranging and immoral ways employers routinely and legally steal workers' time and wages. Doing so entails situating our work within the Marxist-inspired scholarship that critically examines the inherent exploitation of workers in capitalist society (see, for instance, Castree 2009; Harvey 1990, 2014). It was Marx (1867/1967), after all, who argued that employers incessantly seek to squeeze as much surplus value (profits) from workers as possible, including their historic efforts to extend the working day and reduce labor costs through lower wages and/or automation. It is this very notion of capitalist exploitation that we build from to broaden the scope of wage theft and underscore how it is an affront to what should be fundamental principles of fairness in modern Western democracies.

The article begins by examining the disproportionate attention theft by employees has received versus theft by employers and a (necessarily selective) review of wage/time theft literatures. As we shall see, most studies situate wage/time theft as disproportionately affecting the most marginalized workers. Against this backdrop, we argue that unpaid work is symptomatic of modern, flexible capitalism. (2) The second section interrogates the political, economic, and moral characteristics of this phenomenon, tracing the historic links between time and wages within capitalism and their contemporary manifestations. We outline the dominant philosophies of entrepreneurship, as well as the entrenched (and heavily promoted) hatred of government and regulation, and show how these ideological claims became the common wisdom of civil servants, politicians, media, and academia throughout the Global North (and periodically were imposed upon the Global South).The goal is to document how neoliberal rhetoric and state legal systems combine to make wage theft invisible--though it permeates every sphere of modern capitalism. One of the major claims of this article, then, is a normative one: the neoliberal restructuring of employment relations is immoral.

Section I: Major Claims about Wage/Time Theft

Theft by workers and employees from employers has been demonized since wage labor began, legitimated through so-called scientific surveys by economists, business professors, and professional associations that document the perfidy of the laboring classes. Theft by employees cost retail businesses in the United States more than $15 billion in 2014, we are told (National Retail Federation 2015). The Retail Council of Canada (2012) reported $4 billion in losses in 2012, two-thirds of it attributed to internal theft. A global online survey with 203 loss prevention managers from retailers of varying sizes reports that shrinkage--defined as "the difference between the book/ financial values (unit and cost of good) minus the physical count value" (The Smart Cube 2015, 15)--cost retailers $123.39 billion in 2014-2015.Theft by employees accounted for 45 percent of shrinkage in North America versus 36 percent attributed to shoplifting. Numerous tests have been devised to screen out crime-prone job applicants (Ehrenreich 2002, Snider 2002).

However, the myriad ways employers steal from employees--for example, by recording fewer hours than were actually worked, not reporting or minimizing workplace injuries, expecting employees to be on duty 24/7 (and volunteer extra time), or not paying legally mandated minimum wage rates--have received much less attention from mainstream media and academe. Although a number of critical examinations of wage theft have recently appeared (see, for example, Bobo 2009; Coleman 2013,2016; Eastern Research Group, Inc. 2014; Galvin 2016), the dominant voices of neoliberal capitalism who control the conditions of employment are...

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