One of the biggest crime waves in America is not robbery. It is, as Jeff Spross [ht: sm] explains, wage theft.
In dollar terms, what group of Americans steals the most from their fellow citizens each year?
The answer might surprise you: It’s employers, many of whom are committing what’s known as wage theft. It’s not just about underpaying workers. They’re not paying workers what they’re legally owed for the labor they put in.
It takes different forms: not paying workers the federal, state, or local minimum wage; not paying them overtime; or just monkeying around with job titles to avoid regulations.
No one knows exactly how big a problem wage theft is, but in 2012 federal and state agencies recovered $933 million for victims of wage theft. By comparison, all the property taken in all the robberies of all types in 2012, solved or unsolved, amounted to a little under $341 million.
Remember, that $933 million is just the wage theft that’s been addressed by authorities. The full scale of the problem is likely monumentally larger: Research suggests American workers are getting screwed out of $20 billion to $50 billion annually.
Actually, employers steal from workers in at least two different ways: when they don’t pay them what they’re legally owed, and even when they do. In the former case, the laws and enforcement are weak—but at least prosecutors and labor groups are getting more aggressive about pursuing wage theft. Maybe, then, workers will be able to recover the back pay they’re owed and employers, instead of just paying small fines when they’re caught, might actually go to jail.
In the latter case, the theft that occurs even when workers are paid what they’re legally owed, is a bit more difficult, at least within existing economic institutions. That’s because, under the rules of capitalism, workers receive a wage (which, at least under certain circumstances, equals the value of their labor power). But then, beyond the labor-market exchange, when workers start to produce, they create value that is equal not only to their wages, but also an additional amount, a surplus. Even when workers receive their legally mandated wages, that extra or surplus-value is appropriated by their employers. It’s legal and, within the ethical code of capitalism, “fair.”
So, within contemporary capitalism, we should be aware of two kinds of wage theft, both committed by employers: the theft of legally mandated wages and the theft that occurs even when workers receive their legally mandated wages.
The first is a case of individual theft, the second a social theft. Both, it seems, are countenanced within contemporary capitalism—and workers are made to suffer as a result.