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How Employers Steal from Employees: The Untold Story.


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 intensifying their efforts to squeeze ever more time and money from employees and in the process distort what gets officially seen as wage theft. Thus, few labels have been effectively applied to the deviant employer, no tests have been devised to prevent rogue employers from launching new businesses, and only a few dedicated and underfunded nongovernmental organizations and academics track their offenses and call them out.

Take, for instance, the disparity in discourses used to discuss theft by employees versus theft by employers. A Google search of "frauds against business by employees"generated numerous websites telling businesses how to deal with the tsunami of employee theft they supposedly face, including, for example, "Six Steps to Protect against Employee Fraud," "4 Ways to Protect your Business against Employment Fraud and Theft," "Fraud Statistics every Business Should Know," and more. Searching "crimes by employees" turned up websites labelled "5 Types of Employee Theft and Crime to Watch Out For" (Giglio 2013), "Employees in 31-40 Age Group Commit 61% of Economic Crimes" (Press Trust of India 2016), and "Small Business Fraud and the Trusted Employee" (Smith et al. 2013).

This does not mean there are no websites dedicated to documenting and fighting wage theft. However, there are fewer of them and they are not nearly as well funded, as indicated by the prominent "donate here" button many of them feature. The Interfaith Worker Justice coalition, Common Dreams, and a few think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute are among those seeking to raise awareness of wage theft and recover stolen wages. However, the tone is much more defensive. Their rhetoric includes phrases like "there's no excuse for wage theft," "stop wage theft campaign launched," or "wage theft is a crime," and reflects the fact that they are working against the dominant narrative. Moreover, their focus is largely, and understandably, on the traditional forms of wage theft that we argue represent only one component of the problem in contemporary capitalist society.

Wage theft is a dominant part of modern employment relationships today. It is part of a larger phenomenon of unpaid work, labor that is "not compensated via direct payments by capital" which reflects "socially constructed power relations" and "patterns of inequality" (Pupo & Duffy 2012, 27). This reality is reflected in funding disparities for research. Numerous foundations, corporations, and business associations offer grants and contracts to study issues employers define as problems (such as theft by employees). There are no comparable funding sources to study theft from employees. Those who research theft by employers are dependent, in most countries, on discipline-designated government grants (which are few in number and hard to obtain) or on the dwindling number of contracts offered by various state or federal agencies (usually the Departments of Labor or Health), trade unions, or leftist nonprofit organizations with very limited research budgets. Overall, then, we have little information on wage theft across the class spectrum, and our knowledge is dependent on the varied priorities (and budgets) of a few government agencies, trade unions, and nongovernmental organizations. As Galvin (2016, 327) notes, despite growing concern with wage theft within the labor movement, "we still know very little about the contours of the problem."

A Brief History of Wage Theft Research

That said, studies on wage/time theft by employers tend to focus on the egregious levels of exploitation found at the bottom of the class, race, and gender hierarchy. This leads to claims that the primary victims of wage/time theft are marginalized (undocumented, uneducated, often female) workers in marginalized (seasonal, short-term) jobs hired by marginalized (small, flyby-night) employers.These studies document the unsurprising fact that levels of employer abuse are both long-standing and high. Labor standards were nonexistent in US federal law until the New Deal. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), passed in 1939, made the US Department of Labor (DOL) responsible for setting and enforcing "minimally acceptable standards" for wages and working conditions (US Department of Labor 2001, 4).The DOL has been a political target ever since. Ronald Reagan's neoliberal budget cuts in the 1980s led to a reactive complaints-driven enforcement strategy until the early 1990s, when the DOL concluded that this approach was having no lasting deterrent effect on either employers or industries. (3) It then began sending investigators into regions and sectors known for high violation rates. The first three were the garment, health care, and agriculture industries in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Rates varied widely: the garment industry in Los Angeles, for example, reported compliance rates of 22 percent (that is, 78 percent lawbreaking) in 1994 and 33 percent in 2000. San Francisco went from 57 percent to 74 percent, and New York City from 37 percent to 35 percent (DOL 2001). Nursing homes (within the health care sector) and agriculture also had high but wildly variable rates of noncompliance. Compliance rates in other regions of the United States also varied widely, but nursing homes, day care centers, and restaurants were consistently frequent lawbreakers.

A now classic study by Ashenfelter and Smith (1979) was the first to use nationally representative US census data on characteristics of the overall workforce to infer minimum wage violations. Such studies have limited validity, however, because they rely entirely on employees' willingness to report their employers to a government agency they probably have no reason to trust. Undocumented or illegal immigrant workers, those working under the table, the semi- or illiterate, and many others in the marginal labor force are particularly unlikely to participate or reply honestly if they do. Eastern Research Group, Inc. (2014) attempted to address such methodological problems by combining data from two sources: the Current Population Survey (CPS) gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau, and the Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). The aim of the study was to examine the extent of minimum wage violations in the states of California and New York in fiscal year 2011 by computing the number of offenses and amount of wages lost, and the impact these had on poverty rates, tax revenues, and eligibility to participate in state and federal benefit programs. (4)

Notwithstanding inevitable sampling and measurement errors, the results indicate that employers steal thousands of dollars per year from employees, and those with the lowest wages are most exploited. Minimum wage violations ranged from 11.8 percent of all low-wage workers in California to 19.5 percent in New York (Eastern Research Group 2014, 22-26). The average loss per worker per week was $74.50 in California and $57 in New York. The social and economic impacts are, of course, increased poverty for the worker, his/her family, and the community, as well as increased reliance on social assistance.

To overcome the sampling and nonresponse problems of using official data, Bernhardt et al. (2013) developed a methodology that accessed the low-wage worker through his/her social networks, a snowball sample whereby workers' friends, family, and trusted coworkers recruited respondents. Their hope was to reassure potential respondents that participating in the survey "would not trigger ... being reported to the immigration or tax authorities" (Bernhardt et al. 2013, 812), a constant fear of illegal immigrants and off-the-books workers. Their final sample from 2008 analyzed data from 4,387 workers working as cashiers, cooks, childcare workers, janitors, retail clerks, etc., in fields such as food preparation, education, health care, construction, and manufacturing, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. They were 55.6 percent female; only 3.4 percent white (68.3 percent were Latino and 14.8 percent were Black); 30 percent were born in the United States, and 70 percent were foreign-born; and 31 percent were legal or documented, whereas 38 percent were undocumented (illegal). This distribution is probably quite representative of the working poor. Their median average hourly wage was $8.00, the mandated minimum wage in these cities at that time (Bernhardt et al. 2013, 815-16).

Initial results showed that a majority of those surveyed (60.06 percent) experienced one or more forms of wage theft. One quarter of workers (25 percent) reported receiving less than minimum wage, 75.3 percent received no overtime pay, 70.8 percent got nothing for working extra hours before or after shifts, over half (56.7 percent) received no paystubs, and 72.7 percent worked during meal breaks.

The researchers then focused on identifying the factors associated with noncompliance to discover what combination of economic, workplace, or worker conditions produced the most or least compliance by employers. Unlike typical studies of theft by employees, those studying theft by employers do not seek out psychological explanations, nor do they examine the socialization, drug addictions, religiosity, or values of employers who steal. Dominant belief systems in capitalist societies assume that members of the employer class are free from addiction, honest, and normal (despite the fact that many blue-chip companies, including Farmers Insurance Exchange, Walmart, Pacific Bell, Bank of America, Starbucks, and RadioShack, have all faced multimillion-dollar lawsuits for nonpayment of wages owed) (Leong 2005).

In their analysis, Bernhardt et al. (2013) point out that employers' extremely small chances of detection and the small penalties assessed mean there is little incentive for obeying these laws. The number of federal wage and hour investigators, despite staff increases under the Obama administration, remains lower than it was in 1980 (and will undoubtedly drop precipitously under Trump) (US Department of Labor 2011), whereas the workforce has increased by 52 percent. The most vulnerable employees, they find, are those with the least social, economic, and political capital--they are disproportionately poorly educated, unorganized, and undocumented, frequently with Utile command of English. They typically work in jobs requiring little skill or training (making them easily replaceable), in industries where profit margins are low. Workplaces most prone to lawbreaking, in their study, are in industries where most firms are small rather than large, industries in which few workplace benefits are offered, and industries with "nonstandard pay systems," typically not computerized (Bernhardt et al. 2013, 810; Bernhardt et al. 2009; Theodore et al. 2012). Furthermore, they note that although they were unable to measure this directly, their data all indicate that "employers are increasingly organizing work in ways that obscure the lines of legal accountability"--by contracting out, for example--as a key component of their "competitive strategy" (Bernhardt et al. 2013,830; Eastern Research Group, Inc. 2014).

Contemporary Forms of Wage Theft

However, there is also a growing recognition that wage/time theft has spread far beyond the bottom tiers of the wage scale. Shade and Jacobson (2015) document the marked increase in unpaid internships in creative industries such as advertising, fashion, publishing, marketing, and media. Unpaid work here is disproportionately done by young women lured by the hope of securing full-time employment in these fields--a hope that is largely unfulfilled. Baines (2004) notes that unpaid labor in the social services, another field dominated by women, is also increasing, as the sector has been forced to reduce labor costs as it grapples with ongoing government cuts to social welfare programs. This often takes the form of flexible employment (part-time, casual, and contract work), and part-time employees are particularly vulnerable to wage theft (Conway & Sturges 2014, 755,767).

Timekeeping software has added yet another tool to employers' arsenal. A US study by Tippett et al. (2016) of 13 of the most common electronic timekeeping software programs found that such software gives extensive discretion to the employer over how they monitor employees' work time. Because most corporations purchase this software, software developers must compete to secure sales, and a tried-and-tested way to do this is to make systems as customer/corporate-friendly as possible. Employees today log in and out on computers, through badge readers or by smartphone, and their logins are tracked with the timekeeping software employers have purchased. The programs offer several different ways to avoid paying employees what they are due. The most banal (and probably routine) is rounding: employees' times are rounded to a preset interval, such as, for example, the nearest quarter hour. This sounds fair, but Tippett and colleagues suggest that most employees clock in early to avoid being seen as slackers, so 8:56 gets rounded to 9 a.m. more often than 9:04 gets rounded to 9 a.m. More blatant are automatic break deductions (charged whether or not the employee took the full break or any of it), the option giving supervisors the ability to edit employees' timecards, and a feature giving employers the option to pay "all," "none," or "some" of an employee's recorded overtime. Such actions are illegal, but the US Department of Labor last updated its regulations in 1987 and still refers to timekeeping cards and microfilm. Rarely purchased, Tippett and colleagues report, are programs that allow employee to see or edit their hours.

Wage Theft in Other jurisdictions

Although we have concentrated on wage theft in North America, specifically the United States, the problem is present in virtually every country where capitalism, neoliberalism, and globalization thrive. However, ever-present and ever-changing differences in history and in the modern-day balance of political and economic forces mean no two regions, let alone nation-states, are identical. Neoliberalism is not "one thing," as Hall (2015,16) has noted. Even so, as Hall (ibid.) describes, "geopolitically, neoliberal ideas, policies and strategies are incrementally gaining ground, re-defining the political, social and economic model, governing the strategies and setting the pace." In the United Kingdom, for example, where unions have been historically stronger than in the United States, minimum wage violations can be criminally prosecuted instead of or in addition to the regulations enforced by specific agencies.The UK government toughened its provisions again in 2009, requiring noncompliant employers to pay workers their missing wages and a civil fine. In 2011 it supported the suggestion to name and shame violating employers by publishing a list of the country's worst employer-offenders along with the amount of wages owed to their workers (Trades Union Congress 2013). The civil penalties for minimum wage violations were doubled from 100 to 200 percent of the arrears employers owed to their employees, up to a maximum of 20,000 [pounds sterling]--an increase of 5000 [pounds sterling] from 2014. As a result, "in 2014/2015, the Government recovered 3.3 million [pounds sterling] of arrears for 26,000 workers" (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2015b, 34).

Are these measures systematically enforced, however? The National Minimum Wage Act has allowed criminal prosecution of dishonest employers since 1998, but only 10 cases were successfully prosecuted in the ensuing 15 years (Trades Union Congress 2013,5). In 1998, 23.7 percent of all workers reported working extra hours for no pay, compared to 12.8 percent in 1983 (Campbell & Green 2002). A study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC 2013) on minimum wage payment estimated that roughly 250,000 workers in both formal and gray economies in the UK do not receive the legal minimum wage. The most common violations are: under-recording employees' working hours; denying workers' employment status by falsely labelling them as self-employed, interns, or volunteers; not providing or paying for adequate work-related accommodation; and, finally, forcing workers to pay for work-related expenses such as uniforms, tools, training, and travel (ibid.). Migrant workers, domestic workers, workers falsely categorized as volunteers, interns, or self-employed, social care workers, those with irregular hours or without contracts, apprentices, and seafarers are most vulnerable to minimum wage violations (ibid.). Social service agencies have increasingly relied on notions of altruism and caring to create expectations for their predominantly female workforce to "perform unpaid, volunteer work within their own or other social service organization to fill the 'caring gap' created by standardized and thinly staffed paid caring service work" (Baines 2004, 268). Findings for health-care professionals--also female dominated--were similar. A 2007 survey from the UK Healthcare Commission found that 11 percent of the 45,000 nurses and midwives surveyed worked 6 to 10 hours of unpaid overtime per week, and 51 percent put in 1 to 5 unpaid hours per week (Snow 2008, 10).

Recent statistics paint an even bleaker picture. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 362,000 workers received less than minimum wage in 2016, which the TUC notes is a 73 percent increase from the previous year (Trades Union Congress 2016). Apprentices, governed by a separate minimum wage in the UK, are particularly vulnerable to being underpaid (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2015a, 50). More recently, the TUC, using statistics from the 2015 UK Labour Force Survey, reported unpaid overtime for more than 5.1 million workers (19.4 percent of all workers).These unpaid wages affect a range of workers, including those in the teaching/education and legal sectors, along with managers within financial institutions and health/social service workers (Trades Union Congress 2016). According to the TUC, UK workers contribute roughly 31.5 billion [pounds sterling] of unpaid overtime each year. Finally, in February 2017 the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2017) identified 359 UK employers who failed to "pay their workers the national minimum or living wage," totaling almost 1 billion [pounds sterling] in wages stolen from more than 15,000 workers working primarily in the retail and hospitality industries.

All the available information on wage theft shows that employers routinely steal wages from those they employ and that these acts are rarely meaningfully sanctioned. At best they are treated as administrative offenses which generate small fines and are only problematic in a tiny minority of employment relationships. At worst, they are never even discovered. Understaffed, budget-squeezed regulators focus their efforts at enforcement on small-scale employers with marginalized employees, the easiest and cheapest to charge and process. In the next section, we show that this perception is woefully incomplete. Contemporary forms of wage theft flourish across all economic sectors and represent a vital component in a broad transformation in the structures of capitalism.

Section II: The Normalization of Wage Theft

Mainstream conceptions of wage theft help to (re)produce an imaginary social order (Pearce 1976) in which employment relationships are rigorously and appropriately regulated, where states investigate and discipline workplaces that flout a fair and even-handed legal system. In the process, they deflect attention away from a capitalist system that increasingly creates and entrenches advantages for employers vis-a-vis employees. The normalization of wage theft empirically and theoretically must therefore be situated within the neoliberal capitalist moral and social order.

Employment relationships over the last 40 years have been greatly altered by neoliberalism and globalization. The outsourcing of jobs; the decimation of unions, particularly in the private sector; and the demonization, deregulation, and downsizing of public services and support have produced massive increases in corporate power and income inequality and, concomitantly, shifts in employment opportunities. Unionized jobs with benefits and security have disappeared from many sectors of the economy, affecting first the unskilled then the skilled trades and now even reaching into the lower management ranks of many professions. Not coincidentally, accompanying these changes are concerted campaigns to alter the expectations of individual workers (Sennett 1998, Tombs 2016). Recent scholarship challenging these neoliberal values (Sayer 2016,Tombs 2016, Whyte & Wiegratz 2016) points out that neoliberalism is not just an economic and political phenomenon but a hegemonic project aimed at fundamentally transforming the ways in which we, as citizens, view capitalism. Neoliberalism is as much about prioritizing the self-interested market participant as it is about states embracing probusiness regulations, championing private enterprise, and shedding their Keynesian roots. It is about placing a market value on everything, generating a "set of ideas, norms and values that has social currency in contemporary capitalist society" (Whyte & Wiegratz 2016, 1).

Wage theft, from this vantage point, is best understood as a moral project based on a grand narrative that we're all in this together, with everyone doing his or her part to ensure the economy's stability and, hence, the nation's well-being. This is the common sense of win-win economics that dominates the political, economic, and cultural realms of modern capitalist society (Hall & Massey 2015). In the process, a new enclosure has emerged in that the idea of employees having control of their (free) time and wages has been usurped by neoliberal ideology--the tightening of the screws by employers under conditions that normalize wage theft across a broad swath of employment relationships. According to Michalowski (2018, 103; see also Ilcan 2009, Marx 1867/1967), an enclosure refers to "denying one or more social group(s) previously established ownership and/or use of some tangible or intangible element of social life, and the transference of that access to some other group(s)." Although the notion of enclosure is most commonly associated with the forced removal of serfs from their lands for the purpose of forging "capitalist markets for wool," we agree with Michalowski (2018,103) that it can usefully be applied to conditions of modern capitalism, including arenas as diverse as "political participation, public services, cultural patrimony, and ecosystem survival." We submit that a new enclosure has been forged in which employees no longer have access to, or control of, their own time and wages, a situation which allows employers to steal workers' wages/time with impunity.

Most capitalist states, to greater or lesser degrees, have bought into the hegemonic belief that we all need to tighten our belts for the good of the economy--to do more with less, receive fewer state benefits (unless you happen to be one of the privileged few who can afford to hide your wealth offshore to avoid paying taxes), earn less at work, and in some situations accept pay cuts to save jobs. Pursuing individual life goals with little regard for social commitments, collective responsibilities, or societal impact is simply what one must do to get ahead. Working multiple jobs; changing careers, communities, and countries at a moment's notice; and working more for less are all part of doing what it takes to realize the opportunities that are (we are told) there for the neoliberal citizen. The "Uber economy" (Griswold 2016)--characterized by part-time, precarious employment with low pay and no job security or benefits--has been made into the new common sense. As one victim of this economy puts it: "like most Americans, I had accepted the loss of even the idea of a vacation as a fact of what everyone kept calling the new economy"(Chee 2017). Working extra (unpaid) hours for the good of the company and volunteering leisure time to fulfill corporate goals are seen as a necessary strategy to retain employment and deserving of praise not condemnation. Failure to capitalize on what the economy offers is an individual flaw, not a constraint imposed by shifts in globalized trade patterns or the political economy.

From this perspective, the overt stealing of wages (e.g., unpaid work, mandatory and unpaid overtime, volunteering employees' time for corporate goals, and paying less than minimum wage) is symptomatic of neoliberalism's methodical reengineering of the economy and labor relations (Tombs 2016, 30; Whyte & Wiegratz 2016). Instances of wage theft have thus gained prominence, with employers taking full advantage of neoliberal rhetoric that makes getting and keeping a job (regardless of whether or not you are fully remunerated for your work) the sine qua non of a good worker. It is difficult, however, to delineate the full scope of this problem due to the paucity of official statistics, which in itself is a reflection of its normalization. Wage theft today cuts across all classes, albeit with different effects, under the assumption that private markets are the best (and only) means of realizing economic and social prosperity. We are now all expected to personify the "free, possessive individual" (Hall 2015,14), effectively redefining what was once seen as "shocking" or "unthinkable" into the "new normal" (Whyte & Wiegratz 2016, 1).

The Essence of Time

To better understand the conditions that normalize wage theft within this new enclosure we need to revisit briefly the historic links between time and wages under capitalism. For many scholars, time is a social construction that lacks any essence beyond its particular conjuncture. Durkheim, for instance, argued that time and space are historically and geographically contingent (Castree 2009, Nowotny 1992). Norbert Elias focused on time's relational qualities, arguing that time is a reference to make sense of changes in our associations with others (Nowotny 1992,427). Giddens explored the ways in which "social systems are stretched across time and space," whereas Luhmann concentrated on the ways that different events and systems are connected in time (ibid., 428). The concept of clock time dominates today, signifying a social order in which we can locate individuals physically (e.g., at home or work) at given points of the day (Harvey 1990,Martineau 2015). Although the hour was introduced in the thirteenth century, with the addition of minutes and seconds in the seventeenth century, the systematic monitoring and measuring of time gained prominence with the advent of industrial capitalism (Harvey 1990, 423-24; Sennett 1998).

Time is fundamental to capitalism in that it regulates the (re)production of surplus value, providing a necessary "internal force" for (re)securing the system's dominance (Castree 2009, 30; Harvey 1990). In other words, it "is a vital magnitude under capitalism because social labor time is the measure of value and surplus social labor time lies at the origin of profit" (Harvey 1990, 425). The turnover time of capital is essential because producing value faster, be it in production, marketing, or capital turnover, is a "powerful competitive means for individual capitalists to augment profits" (ibid.). Clock time permits the calculation of wages and rates of profit, allows for the comparison of wages across time and place, helps forge a disciplined workforce, and provides statistics and exact measures of how long it takes for a product to enter the market (Castree 2009, 41; Harvey 1990; Stahel 1999, 110). Time has been cut into ever tinier fractions--the nanosecond and the algorithm allow financial traders to realize ever greater profits in each 24-hour period (Snider 2014). These increments allow capitalists to calculate loan and interest in increasingly small dollops of time, thereby generating additional avenues of profit (Castree 2009, 46). Under capitalism,

[t]he capacity to measure and divide time has been revolutionized, first through the production and diffusion of increasingly accurate time pieces and subsequently through close attention to the speed and coordinating mechanisms of production (automation, robotization) and the speed of movement of goods, people, information, messages, and the like. (Harvey 1990, 425)

Time is money, according to a familiar capitalist adage, and it fuels the capitalist's insatiable search for producing profits as quickly and efficiently as possible (Castree 2009).

As Marx (1867/1967) points out, time has the power to shape contractual relations for work in ways that protect capital's interests. The working day, according to Marx, is a continuous struggle between workers and employers as to what constitutes a fair day's work. The capitalist calculates this in ways that minimize the length of time workers spend off work and the remuneration required to cover the worker's daily costs to reproduce his/her labor power. The capitalist's goal is to pay workers the minimum amount and get the maximum production out of their labor in the shortest amount of time possible (hopefully sooner than competitors) (Castree 2009, Harvey 1990). Workers, dependent on a limited number of employers, are commodities forced to sell their labor power to capitalists who assign an exchange value to their labor (Castree 2009,38).

Over the last three centuries, decades of struggle have sometimes won concessions from employers and resulted in improved wages and working conditions. The earliest reforms were the UK Factory Acts, passed in stages between 1819 and 1853. Initially, business resistance was huge--at this stage of the Industrial Revolution, forcing employees to work until they dropped (often literally) was an economically rational thing to do. Restrictions on time were seen as interposing the power of the state between factory owners and their workers. Regulations also made careful recordkeeping necessary, further raising the owner's costs (Carson 1979). Constant and prolonged struggle finally secured regulations that limited the length of the workday, eliminated child labor, and made rudimentary provisions for ventilation systems and meal breaks (Snider 2015). The advent of Fordism 50 years later provided new ways to speed production, but also provided a window from the 1950s to the 1970s in which unions and labor gained strength vis-a-vis capital and secured relatively good wages and working conditions (Harvey 1990, Sayer 2016).

Labor laws establishing contractual rules that both employers and employees must follow were also passed in periods of relative labor strength. They represent an attempt by the state to construct a balance of power between these two competing yet highly unequal parties (Tucker 2008). Such laws typically specify the number of hours employees can be expected to work in a week, compensation if their work week exceeds this number, the number and type of breaks employers must provide, and more. However, given the political economy of capitalist states (albeit the balance of power varies over time, nation-state, and region) and the reluctance of such states to act against powerful capitalist elites, these laws, as we have seen, have disproportionately favored the long-term interests of capital. Workers, particularly those without union representation and/or those marginalized by race, gender, disability, or legal status, have lost out (ibid.). Automation and globalization have put many salaried and contractual or outsourced employees in even more precarious positions, as labor laws generally do not cover them (Faraday 2017, Hill 2015, Mosco 2017).

The conditions of capitalism today look very different from those prevailing through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Neoliberalism and globalization have succeeded in reversing many of labor's protections and have made it increasingly difficult for workers to maintain, let alone improve, their working and living conditions. The intensified international competition brought on by globalized trade has produced greater pressures on capital to speed up production and reduce turnover (Harvey 1990,426). The political, economic, and moral currents of neoliberalism have changed standard perceptions of employment relations, the expectations of workers, and what are perceived to be reasonable demands on employers. In particular, the compression of "time and space" has been normalized "cognitively and emotionally" (Castree 2009,35); we are encouraged to believe that a faster pace of life and less leisure time are the inevitable results of the technological changes that have shrunk the world (Harvey 1990). This hegemonic order permeates every facet of modern life. Even universities, institutions set up to study and critique societal change, face pressure to speed up the production of ideas (and most crucially, value-generating innovations), pressures that eerily parallel "a general push to accelerate turnover time within capitalism as a whole" (ibid., 431).

The effects of this intensification of "costs and time reductions" (ibid.) are particularly relevant for contemplating the many insidious ways that workers'wages are minimized, reduced, and/or stolen. Seeking ways to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time is, in neoliberal terms, an inherent good, particularly when achieved through private market activity. New technologies such as robots, drones, and big data have allowed employers to introduce forced flexibility into the workplace, producing "polyglot workers" who can be regularly replaced with minimal cost and interruption (Sennett 1998, 72). Just-in-time production strategies--the new technologies lauded by business as necessary for increasing productivity (Sennett 1998, Snider 2019, Vosko et al. 2017)--and offshoring are other strategies used to reduce labor costs and steal wages, both in the Global South, where exploitation is greatest, and throughout the Global North via wage suppression under the threat of capital flight (Sayer 2016, Tombs 2016). Unions, themselves undercut by neoliberalism, have been forced to adopt defensive measures, including negotiating lower wages, forgoing benefits, or accepting workforce reductions. Workers who demand better wages are seen as greedy, simply not meeting their obligation to do more with less--public sector workers such as teachers and government workers have been particularly demonized (Tombs 2016). This demonization of resistance makes it increasingly difficult for those struggling to improve their fife chances to gain any public support and without this, sustaining job actions and/or securing lasting legal changes from reluctant governments is unlikely, if not impossible.

With wage stagnation and suppression the norm, as well as flexible and competitive working arrangements that make precariousness a reality for everyone, a level of fear in modern employment relationships--which works to the advantage of employers--has taken over our collective psyche (Sennett 1998; also see Peck &Theodore 2012). In the United States, the Economic Policy Institute reports that 6.4 million Americans are employed in "involuntary part-time work," meaning they would rather work full-time but don't have any other options (Golden 2016,1). Research by Katz and Krueger (2016, cited in CEBglobal Staff 2016) found that 94 percent of new jobs created in the United States between 2005 and 2015 were "temporary, contract or 'gig economy' work." In Canada, the majority of new jobs in 2016 were part-time, a shift from previous years when most were full-time (Ligaya 2017). This uncertainty in employment opportunities, the new normal of neoliberal capitalism, allows employers to take unprecedented advantage of workers by threatening to relocate if their needs are not met and demanding a more flexible and compliant workforce in the process (Harvey 1990, Sennett 1998).

This forging of the new enclosure does not mean that neoliberalism's moral authority is absolute. As previously noted, not only is neoliberalism more than "one thing" (Hall 2015, 16; emphasis in original), its dominance is always and necessarily undermined by its repeated failure to deliver on the promise of win-win economics (Cooper & Whyte 2017,Hall & Massey 2015). Notwithstanding, there is little denying that neoliberal morality has led the way when it comes to the normalization of wage theft, denying workers control over their time and wages in ways not seen since before the introduction of Keynesian-inspired wage controls. In essence, neoliberalism's constant crusade to abolish the so-called nanny state when it comes to important social protections (Tombs 2016) and labor markets (Hall 2015) has provided fertile ground for shifting the balance of power in employment relations to heavily favor the interests of private enterprise. This scenario has helped to normalize wage theft in that the terms of employment--with the mindset that flexibility is good for all of us, coupled with a take it or leave it mentality to working conditions--disenfranchise and disempower employees. Time and wages have been effectively stolen from a generation of workers, creating a new enclosure (Michalowski 2018) that cuts them off from what is legally and morally theirs and creates structural inequalities that render it difficult (not impossible) for them to reclaim control of their employment experiences and to overcome their increasingly precarious social locations. It is for these reasons we argue for a broader understanding of the normalization of wage theft as part of the neoliberal reengineering that started 40 years ago and, despite hopes that things might change following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, continues apace.

Conclusion: Challenging the Immorality of Neoliberal Wage Theft

This article has documented the transformation in contemporary attitudes to employment and the intensified exploitation of employees in contemporary, neoliberal capitalist society. It examined the limited research on the routine theft of employees' wages by employers, including failure to pay workers for work completed and paying less than legally required minimum wages. The material effects of wage theft are greatest for low-wage workers who already face significant economic barriers due to the paucity of their choices and avenues for recourse, the precariousness of their employment, the underenforcement of employment standards, the advent of electronic timekeeping, the absence of union representation to support their claims of unpaid wages, and, for undocumented immigrant workers, the threat of deportation (Bernhardt et al. 2013, Stone 2006). At the same time, we have shown that wage theft extends beyond the overt nonpayment of wages owed to salaried employees. Only the 1 percent, the elites who benefit greatly from globalized, austerity-driven capitalism, escape wage/time theft. Virtually all employees, the salaried and hourly paid, now face situations at work in which they are expected to do more for and with less--i.e., working more hours for less money or even for free--for the good of the company and the economy or to avoid losing a job (Tombs 2016). Although low-wage workers experience the greatest exploitation, the (im)morality of this breed of global capitalism infects all classes and identities. In this respect, as Sayer (2007, 264) notes, "what was once a matter of legitimacy becomes simply 'how things are' or, as in the 'belief in a just world', where what we get is what we deserve, or is at least rightfully ours and not due to others." Such is the world according to neoliberalism that regularizes wage theft as the cost of doing business. This makes resistance extremely challenging: we must not only confront individual businesses, we must problematize a hegemonic mindset--a cultural, political, and economic perspective on life. As Whyte and Wiegratz (2017, 246) argue, "[t]o be against corporate fraud," to which we would add wage theft, "in current times ... means to be against neoliberal moral economy and its corresponding political economy."

None of this suggests that changes to employment relations are without resistance or that the dominance of capital is absolute. Of course, capital cannot totally ignore Judeo-Christian moral strictures--thou shalt not steal, for example, or the monetary interests of workers. Doing so would risk widespread social upheaval, and the struggle to win over the hearts and minds of the public is an ongoing, never-finished endeavor. In this respect, wage theft does not happen by fiat but instead is a product of state and corporate decisions that are subject to resistance and limited (at least theoretically) by law. Take, for instance, Marx's notion of overaccumulation and contradictions generated by the constant pressure of capital to maximize profits (Harvey 1982). In essence, strategies to reduce the costs of production or cut jobs through automation generate a working class of consumers without the capacity to purchase the materials that they help to make or buy the financial services banks are pushing. What is more, attempts to circumvent this problem through increased financialization have produced a series of financial bubbles and increased the debt obligations of workers/ consumers to unsustainable levels.

Thus, it is not surprising that we have witnessed growing forms of resistance to the neoliberalization of capital accumulation, including the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as efforts to win back workers' stolen wages and struggles to democratize workplaces in ways that give workers greater control over the organization of production, wages, and the (re)distribution of surplus values (Wolff 2012). (5) None of these efforts are easy to implement, and none will work everywhere, as the strength and direction of pushback and the historical, cultural, and political forces of the status quo vary by region and sector. That said, no social order is static. The fact that most capitalist democracies (Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc.) have passed legislation criminalizing some corporate harms is itself evidence that the state does not automatically do the bidding of the corporate sector. Neoliberal knowledge claims create new realities and new constellations of power and interest groups, and the consequences of neoliberal policies provoke resistance, creating the potential for altering a system that produces so much harm and inequality.


The authors would like to thank Ashley Chen for her research assistance and the two anonymous reviewers of this journal for their helpful comments and suggestions.


(1.) Such an approach would be impractical as well. Given the levels of wage/time theft we know about (undoubtedly a small percentage of the whole), criminalizing offenders would bankrupt even the richest countries.

(2.) Patriarchy, an issue we cannot explore in this article, is also relevant.The nonpayment and, indeed, failure to even recognize much of the work done by women, particularly women's emotional labor or labor in the home, is a global phenomenon (Armstrong & Armstrong 1990, Pupo & Duffy 2012, Walters et al. 1997).

(3.) Trump's budget proposals (March 2017) include draconian cuts to the Department of Labor (Aisch & Parlapiano 2017). We can expect little research and even less enforcement under this regime.

(4.) Because there is no consensus on what constitutes a low wage, the authors defined it as wages below 1.5 times the minimum wage in 2011. This corresponds roughly to poverty level for a full-time worker (Eastern Research Group, Inc. 2014,22, ftn. 63).

(5.) Some might also argue that the election of Donald Trump, with his promise to restore manufacturing jobs and prevent corporations from moving jobs to countries with lower wages, represents a challenge to these neoliberal capitalist trends.


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Steven Bittle & Laureen Snider *

* Steven Bittle is Associate Professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. His research and teaching interests include crimes of the powerful, corporate crime, corporate criminal liability, safety crimes, and the sociology of law. He is the author of Still Dying for a Living: Corporate Criminal Liability after the Westray Mine Disaster (UBC Press, 2012) and coeditor (with Laureen Snider, Steve Tombs, and David Whyte) of Revisiting Crimes of the Powerful: Marxism, Crime and Deviance (Routledge, 2018). Laureen Snider is Emeritus Professor of sociology at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. She has written extensively on corporate crime, crimes of the powerful, surveillance/technology, punishment, and the criminalization of women. Recent publications include a special issue of Critical Criminology tided "Crimes of the Powerful: The Canadian Context" (coeditor, with Steven Bittle and Dean Curran, 2018), About Canada: Corporate Crime (Fernwood, 2015), and Revisiting Crimes of the Powerful: Marxism, Crime and Deviance (coeditor, with Steven Bittie, Steve Tombs, and David Whyte; Roudedge, 2018).
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