When labor advocates and law enforcement officials talk about wage theft, they are usually referring to situations in which low-wage service-sector employees are forced to work off the clock, paid subminimum wages, cheated out of overtime pay or denied their tips. It is a huge and underpoliced problem. It is also, it turns out, not confined to low-wage workers.
In the days ahead, a settlement is expected in the antitrust lawsuit pitting 64,613 software engineers against Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe. The engineers say they lost up to $3 billion in wages from 2005-9, when the companies colluded in a scheme not to solicit one another’s employees. The collusion, according to the engineers, kept their pay lower than it would have been had the companies actually competed for talent.
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When wage theft against low-wage workers is combined with that against highly paid workers, a bad problem becomes much worse. Data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute show that in 2012, the Department of Labor helped 308,000 workers recover $280 million in back pay for wage-theft violations — nearly double the amount stolen that year in robberies on the street, at banks, gas stations and convenience stores.Once again, why aren't these thieves going to jail? It's all well and good that the Justice Department and various state-level agencies are starting to do something for employees whose wages have been stolen, but where is the disincentive preventing employers from doing this in the first place?
Yesterday, I talked about the potential transforming power of a politics of love. For me, that includes standing up for people who are being taken advantage of, even if we have no personal connection to them. I can't see that it is moral simply to turn a blind eye to injustice committed by the economically powerful. That doesn't mean I t would advocate torturing the executives who steal from their employees, but I would advocate giving them an opportunity to do the right thing, and if they choose not to, well then there should be consequences that make it not worth their while to steal. If it is good enough for the guy sticking up the convenience store, it should be good enough for the guy sticking up software engineers.