Wage Theft

The Bosses Steal $50 Billion from Us Every Year

Every year, employers across the US steal an estimated $50 billion in unpaid wages from their workers. This colossal sum is three times greater than all other forms of criminal theft combined, and surpasses the entire GDP of Bolivia.

Not satisfied with the surplus value they extract from our labor through legal forms of exploitation, the bosses are determined to use any way they can get away with to steal more food out of the hungry mouths of our families. Not content with standing over us with a stopwatch during each shift, the bosses also ensure that we’re plunged into financial stress and indignity every time we try to pay the bills. Not happy with paying us a legal wage that is already so low it’s impossible to survive on, the bosses find ways to pay us even less than the legal minimum.

Some 52 million workers—nearly one-in-three members of the US workforce—earn less than $15 an hour. It is primarily among the ranks of these low-wage workers that wage theft is most rampant. Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable and oppressed layers of the working class are those most likely to be forced into low-wage, degrading work.

New York Restaurant
It is estimated that between 2017 and 2021, $203 million in wages were stolen from 127,000 workers in New York, with 25% of this wage theft—$52 million in stolen wages—reported in restaurants. / Image: Lou Stejskal, Flickr

Take the New York City restaurant industry, for example. The city’s booming nightlife of bars and restaurants generates over $35 billion in economic output and relies on the labor of 300,000 workers. But you only need to peek into the kitchens of most luxurious, high-priced establishments to witness the bustle of immigrant workers—60% of them undocumented—whose labor generates those billions for the bosses. It is estimated that between 2017 and 2021, $203 million in wages were stolen from 127,000 workers in New York, with 25% of this wage theft—$52 million in stolen wages—reported in restaurants.

Capitalism can only survive through the exploitation of the working class. Taken as a share of annual GDP, the labor of a worker in the US generates $132,203 per year on average. And yet, most of this value is appropriated by the capitalist class in the form of profits, rent, and interest on debt. The struggle for daily existence forces many workers into jobs where they know they’re being cheated more than the normal amount, and yet, as individuals, they are powerless to resist.

Finding a steady job is a challenge in itself for many poor people when it’s stacked on top of the pressures of parenting, dealing with a past criminal conviction, complicated immigration status, or lack of a car. Bosses love employing vulnerable people they can wring extra money out of. This goes to show why you can’t have capitalism without oppression.

Wage theft has many ugly faces. Minimum wage violations are by far the largest contributor. For example, in Florida, one quarter of low-wage workers are kept in the dark about their being paid less than the Sunshine State’s minimum. If your employer has forced you to work off the clock, not paid you a mandated overtime rate, forced you to work through a break, or made you pay for damaged goods or your transportation at your job, you are probably a victim of wage theft.

And it’s not just small companies that lack oversight which get away with stealing from their employees. All of the US’s largest employers like Amazon, Walmart, and Home Depot have settled claims with employees for tens of billions of dollars in unpaid wages, without admitting any guilt, of course. Walmart, for its part, paid out $1.8 billion in fines and settlements related to wage theft between 2000 and 2018.

So how can workers get back their stolen wages?

First of all, we should be clear that the court system is utterly ineffective. It is estimated that a mere 2% of stolen wages are recovered by workers through the courts. This is a very good deal for employers who see lawsuits and fines as a miniscule cost of doing business. In most states, workers have little to no legal protection against retaliation by their bosses. The fact that stealing a bag of groceries can land you in jail, but committing wage theft to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars goes unpunished should tell you everything you need to know about capitalist legality.

The struggle against wage theft is part of the class struggle, and can only be fought with class-war methods. / Image: Chad Davis, Flickr

The struggle against wage theft is part of the class struggle, and can only be fought with class-war methods. This means relying exclusively on our collective strength in numbers, and recognizing our power as a class to bring capitalist profits to a halt.

Workers can confront the bosses collectively in a variety of ways by acting on the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all!” In a one-on-one setting, the boss will try to take advantage of an individual worker’s undocumented status or financially desperate situation. But if workers band together during a shift and walk in on the boss or manager to demand unpaid wages, they can support each other and make it more difficult for individuals to be victimized.

Creating a union in the workplace is the first line of defense for organizing workers into a force capable of standing up to the boss. The decision to go on strike is never taken lightly, but withdrawing our labor power to paralyze production is our ultimate weapon as a class, and has proved its effectiveness over the centuries. Workers demonstrating and picketing outside of a workplace and encouraging passersby not to support the establishment is another tried and tested tactic. In all of these cases, inviting local unions and other layers of the working class to struggle with you is a great way to build class solidarity.

Ultimately, what is needed in order to carry out this struggle on a sufficient scale is a mass revolutionary party. Just imagine a scenario where the restaurant workers across NYC were all organized into a well-coordinated network of committees that could allow the workers to act in complete unison and put forward clear demands. At the drop of a hat, the city’s multi-billion dollar nightlife could be brought to a screeching halt. The bosses would be at the mercy of the workforce, and forced to think twice before shafting their employees. But this battle could only succeed if the workers knew they were all fighting together, and standing together to defend every worker from every employer, class against class.

A mass communist party armed with the ideas of Marxism and with roots in every union, campus, and working-class neighborhood can fight for more than just lost wages—it’s our ticket to throwing off the exploiters for good! Join Socialist Revolution and help to build the next nucleus of that organization wherever you are.

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