Labor theft: How your life is stolen from you bit by bit

Worried businessman image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici. Farmer image courtesy Sura Nualpradid. Both via

Worried businessman image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici. Farmer image courtesy Sura Nualpradid. Both via

Labor theft: No one really knows when it first began. But certainly as soon as one group had the power over another, the subjugated group was put to work. There are well known examples of slavery throughout ancient history, perhaps most notably in Egypt.

While certainly the indigenous people of North and South America practiced various forms of slavery at times before European invaders arrived, it was only with the arrival of the white man that the practice became so efficient and so systematic.

The arrival of Columbus could be considered the critical turning point in this dark history. The discovery of the New World set off a fascinating economic boom with wealth extracted from the local population and shipped off to Europe.

The history taught today in the U.S. skips quickly from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. In those 128 years, however, a great deal happened. Columbus himself became a tyrant and entire tribes were completely obliterated in the Bahamas. When there were no more locals left to exploit, the import of black slaves from Africa began. This practice quickly spread to the farmland of what would become the southern United States. In South America, a conveyor belt of ships began filling up local settlements with Spaniards. The Spaniards had equally devastated the cities of that continent, wiping out the Incas and replacing their epic civilizations with adorable Colonial towns. And yes, coerced labor was widespread there, too. Tending crops, digging in mines, moving stones.

Yep, it’s still happening

In North America, we have a rich tradition of stealing the labor of others. It stains our conscience and pulls at the patchwork of our country, even today. In 1607, the settlement at Jamestown started things off with indentured servants. These people worked off their debts for a set period of time before being set free. It was a difficult life, but would seem like heaven compared to the nightmare that would come later. By the mid-1600s black slavery was fully part of the American culture, so accepted that it seemed as normal as not having slaves seems to us today. Even today there are millions living in slavery here and around the world.

We pretend it doesn’t exist even as we benefit. It’s always been this way. We think of the people living in the “free” North as against slavery back in the 1800s, but I’m sure they all wore cotton shirts. We abhor exploitation of labor in the abstract. We get all worked up about it, even as we read about it on smartphones created with exploited labor. Our fingers are encrusted with diamonds dug from mines by enslaved hands.

Our long tradition of stealing labor, of moneyed interests exploiting the work that created their wealth, crops up in new and surprising ways all the time, as much as we try to ignore it. Often it hides in the shadows and goes by other names, but it’s still with us, yes even here.

Our own workforce is frequently exploited. This modern version of labor theft comes in many forms and companies use many tactics to keep us trapped. Let’s look at a few:

Cheap overseas manufacturing

Think about it: I can say with almost 100% certainty that everything you’re touching right now was made in China. Why? Because the American appetite for low prices is a perfect fit for China’s abundant supply of untapped labor. Setting aside the exploitation of China’s workforce for a moment, the other effect of globalization has been the disappearance of America’s good manufacturing jobs. Factory workers who still have jobs in the U.S. now have to compete with very low cost workers in other countries. Countries without labor protection and safety laws.

Undocumented workers

One has to love the hubris of the American right wing as they demonize “illegal immigrants”. After all, the party obsessed with big business has been instrumental in ensuring millions of foreign workers stream into our country to find cheap work. Why? So our “expensive” labor will have cheap competition.

High unemployment rate

Want to talk about cheap competition? How about millions of people thrown out of work? Why import a bunch of cheap labor when we can just make our own, right? No, I’m not saying these criminals crashed the economy on purpose to create cheap labor. But I am saying it’s just another opportunity to drive down the cost of labor. Not only is there always someone else willing to work more cheaply, but you’re less likely to demand a raise or move to another company if there are limited opportunities out there.

Wage theft

Wage theft is a tried and true form of labor theft. It’s pretty simple. Have someone work for you, then don’t pay them. I know a lot of hired day laborers run into this a lot, especially undocumented workers who have no recourse. But others who work legally often have portions of their checks stolen by shaving hours or not paying overtime.


Taking on large amounts of debt has reached the level of sport in America. It’s like a competition to see who can rack up the most debt before they tip over. The party-time of endless shopping has a downside, though, when the realization comes that this debt has left you trapped in your job. Being trapped means you have little alternative but to keep working for whatever you can get.

Health care system

Attaching one’s health care to one’s job was always a terrible idea. It was a movement driven by labor unions — misguidedly in my opinion — to drive toward health coverage. At a time when most workers were unionized, I guess it made sense. Unfortunately this handed a massive amount of power to corporations. At its absolute worst before the Affordable Care Act was finally passed, the chronically ill were truly enslaved to their companies. Others were simply forced to work for less and less money as health costs were shifted onto workers. Many people worked many extra years, not for money, but for health coverage.

Worker “productivity”

Worker productivity is a euphemism for squeezing more work out of each employee. Now I don’t blame companies for wanting to get the most out of their labor dollars. Even as a fellow employee, I would be totally aggravated by people who took the paycheck, but did little, if any, actual work. The problem, however, is without any union framework or a balanced economy, there is no countervailing force on the employee side. I once knew a guy who worked nearly every night doing the work he didn’t have time to complete during the day. He was a director, but he sat on the couch each night instead of playing with his kids, entering new SKUs into the database. What the hell? This is an entry level job, but he was doing it for the company for free, on top of his regular job. Why? Because he had kids and a mortgage and a low self-esteem. He was terrified of taking another conference room beating for not having his work done. I don’t mind putting in a few extra hours when a project calls for it. Certainly work doesn’t always come in nice eight-hour bundles. But every night? I would have been out of there before my lips could form the words “fuck you.”

America has managed to turn the purist word in the world — “freedom” — into a brand name. We pretend we’re free as we’re forced into work by our massive mortgage, car payments and school loans. Worse, we buy “cheap” stuff made elsewhere, thinking we’re saving money and yet are taking money out of our own economy to send elsewhere, driving down our own wages.

Is your labor being stolen?

If you’ve been working for the same pay for years or are being pressured to work nights and weekends, you may not have a lot of immediate options in the short-run. However, in the long run, you do have some choices. Stay out of debt, drop the mindless spending, build up your passive income and pretire as soon as possible.

Look, if you’re regularly working 16-hour days, your company is stealing from you.  And it’s worse than stealing a few dollars from your wallet. They’re stealing your LIFE. You only get so many hours on this planet. Sell them as needed but don’t let anyone take them from you.

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36 Thoughts on “Labor theft: How your life is stolen from you bit by bit

  1. “Stay out of debt, drop the mindless spending, build up your passive income and pretire as soon as possible.” So true! Too often we are the victims of our own choices. I try not to take it to the extreme with this, but every purchase can have a consequence. It’s up to you if you can live with a setback of your debt payoff date, or your early retirement date. That is one of the biggest motivators for me to be frugal. If I want to buy something, I realize that it will be money not going toward my student loans, which means pushing saving the most I can for retirement back a little. I definitely don’t want to be a slave to any job I may have.
    E.M. recently posted…Financial Observations About ColleaguesMy Profile

  2. So true PN,
    I don’t want to be in a “cube-a-cell” any longer. In the developed world we are really blessed to be able to work or not work rather than being slaves outright. Many in the third world don’t have that choice. So many in the developed world unwittingly “buy” their way into slavery though their (spending/lifestyle) choices. It’s not the way for me…..and I’m glad not for you.
    Have a great day,
    ps. I like the box about being a Seahawks fan. Nice touch!

    • Pretired Nick on October 22, 2013 at 9:37 am said:

      Cube-a-cell — I love that! We are very fortunate here in the West. Too bad we whine about our situation so much! Glad you’re on-board the Seahawks bandwagon!

  3. I love history…and you are absolutely right that our schools tend to gloss over parts of our history that puts the US in a bad light. It is something I’m sure other countries do as well. You make some really good points and it was a interesting read. I definitely agree that health insurance shouldn’t be tied to your job…it doesn’t make sense…a very complicated issue. I also love the statement that EM quoted…so true. You don’t want your life stolen from you…
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Why Aren’t You Saving for Retirement?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 22, 2013 at 9:39 am said:

      Thanks, Andrew! So frustrating having health insurance tied to work. I’m always amazed how Americans put up with this.

  4. Pretired Nick,

    This is a powerful post. Makes you really think about what you are doing every day. I ‘only’ work 40 hour weeks for the most part, and get paid for overtime. This is a rarity in my field (IT), so I consider myself lucky. Debt is the key. It’s bad to ‘need’ a job, instead of putting yourself in the position to not need the job by not borrowing money. Gives you leverage with your employer, and when looking for a new job or starting a business. Steelers fan BTW!

    Retire Before Dad recently posted…CSX: DRIP Investment InitiatedMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 22, 2013 at 10:00 am said:

      Thanks, RBD! Good for you for sticking to the 40 hour week! Being free of the pressure of needing a job gives you a lot of freedom to set your own rules.
      Steelers fan? Well, no one’s perfect.

  5. +1 on the debt being a modern form of slavery for middle America. Employers can name their terms and work you to the bone if they know you’re like a crack addict and will do anything for that next paycheck.

    Makes having some “F-You” money nice.

    On your deathbed, will you ever say “Man, I’m glad I worked so many long hours and didn’t get to see my wife and kids”. Hell no!
    Justin @ RootofGood recently posted…Rethinking RetirementMy Profile

  6. I think this post shows how important it is to get out of debt and build up an emergency fund. If you have a nice little safety net (a.k.a. F-you money), you won’t put up with this kind of labour theft!
    This Life On Purpose recently posted…What would you do with your life if money was no object?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 9:52 am said:

      TOTALLY! Even a small scale freedom fund puts you in a completely different place with your employers. Freedom isn’t free, but it isn’t very expensive, either.

  7. I’m going to start calling you “Political Nick” instead of “Pretired Nick”. 😉

    The beginning of your post reminded me of The People’s History of the United States. Crazy stuff in our past.

    Just to play devil’s advocate, I think American wages allow us the ability to buy more freedom than just about any other country’s citizens can. We’re also subject to more temptation and pressure to spend those wages unnecessarily. Double edged sword, but the individual American has the ability to break those chains quicker than most.

    (And no, I’m still not a Seahawks fan. 🙂 Watch out, NFL, the Steelers are on a 2 game winning streak!)
    Done by Forty recently posted…The Cherokee Land Lottery: What Happens When You Randomize WealthMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 9:55 am said:

      Heh, I deserve that! We actually probably agree more than disagree. Our wages on average have been higher than the rest of the country. However, this has been eroding over the past several decades. All the data shows this. The fact that we help this process along with our dumb spending is just an additional factor.

      Sounds like you’re really a Seahawks fan, but aren’t ready to admit it yet. We’ll just put you down as a fan for now.

  8. Wow, PT Nick. I agree. (I could end my comment there, really!)

    When you have a collective mentality that, “You’re lucky to even have a job,” people are bound to be exploited. It’s why I see so many people walking around like zombies – stressed and in debt. I couldn’t do it anymore – not even for the healthcare, summers off, or for the children. Working for peanuts at the expense of my health just wasn’t cutting it.

    Oh, you are a wily one with the spam filter down there, Mr. Seattle Seahawks!

    • My former boss (who’s still working) used to pull that “You’re lucky to even have a job” crap on us as he cut our wages and slashed our benefits. He was the co-owner of the business and had absolute control over what we were paid and our benefits package.

      Little did he know I was clandestinely saving up my F-You money and I executed the perfect stealth strategy by retiring at 33. Ironically in large part due to the benefits and compensation I once received from him! 🙂

      Go seahawks?

      • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 9:57 am said:

        The “lucky to have a job” mentality is one that really sticks in my craw. No, they’re lucky to have YOU. Good for you guys for getting out of that horror!
        Welcome new Seahawks fans!

        • Oh man, I didn’t realize Russell Wilson ended up at the Seahawks! He was so awesome at NC State.

          I think the “lucky to have a job” shtick works well on mindless drones. Where I worked in consulting, we all knew how the business worked and that it was our time and our expertise we were selling, and the employer got a huge markup to cover overhead and profit for each hour of our time we sell. If we were bringing in work and billing out collectible hours, they were lucky to have US!
          Justin @ RootofGood recently posted…Dear Technorati, Look Here! And other news for the weekMy Profile

          • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 8:46 pm said:

            Right on, Justin! Smart employers know to hire good people and do what it takes to keep them happy because it makes their business better. Unfortunately so many just look at it as an expense item to be driven down. Sad.

            Yeah, man, Russell is tearing it up here. Great story about how he got the job here last year if you have some time!

  9. It makes you think…every work day I drop my kids off at 7, not to see them again until 6. This is much more than bit by bit, this is chunks of my life being stolen from me. Frankly, I’ve been lazy with respect to my debt for the past few years, not realizing the future implications of this attitude. Fortunately, with help from this site, and many other great resources out there, the path to freedom is becoming clearer by the day. Here’s to getting on the path to end this nonsense before our kids are grown up and in the same spot themselves 🙂
    Mark @ Debt, Dividends, and Diversions recently posted…Debt Reduction Part 1: BackgroundMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 9:58 am said:

      Good on you for changing your mentality, Mark! The best part is you’ll have a negative AND a positive example to show your kids. By watching your journey, they’ll easily be able to stay out of trouble and live with much less stress in their lives.

  10. One of the main reasons why I decided to go the self employment route was because the company where I was working (an Alexa top 300 website) had a 9 to 6 schedule, just because they could. The pay was good in Romanian terms, but with the commute I was losing 10 or 10 and a half hours per day. I was always getting home tired and stressed and irritated and didn’t have any time for social life or other fun activities with my girlfriend (now my wife). I realized that my life was stolen from me and decided to take action. Since then, I try to make all my friends see that they are in a similar situation but the truth is that in many cases they simply can’t risk quitting their job because finding a new one is tricky. Especially a new one where you won’t be in a similar situation.
    C. the Romanian recently posted…Should You Lend Money to Family?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 10:00 am said:

      Love that story, C! Good for you for gaining your freedom! Many people are utterly trapped in the short run, but over the longer run if they build a plan and stick with it, they can escape as well.

  11. I loved Steve Largent, but I checked the box today for loftier reasons. The schools stole from me for 7 years. I was salaried, a euphemism for my work never being done. Another form of slave labor that I was supposed to be thankful for. Eff that.

    Now, in my guitar studio, I get paid exactly for what I do. After 30 or 60 minutes, I politely excuse the student and enter another. When it is time to leave, I begin packing up.

    I cannot say enough horrible, spiteful, hateful things about our attitude toward work in the US. There ought to be daily rioting over the current conditions, but we are so pleasantly amused and confused with all our media and junk thought, we cannot seem to get angry enough.

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 10:02 am said:

      Teachers are some of the most exploited workers out there. Worse, their love and care for their students is used against them! I am also surprised daily that people aren’t out in the streets (although you saw how the Occupy people were demonized by the media, so maybe it’s not surprising).
      I wish you lived closer so I could take lessons from you!
      Steve Largent was great, but Russell Wilson is better!

  12. Wow, nice one man. I worked a lot of extra hours when I was younger too. It’s a good way to get noticed. Once I stop working extra, my career suddenly came to a grinding halt. There are always younger/better looking people who are willing to work more than you…
    I’m glad I didn’t stuck in that mode like many of my old coworkers.
    retirebyforty recently posted…Why use the 529 plans to save for collegeMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 10:04 am said:

      Even more than doing it to get noticed, in high tech it’s become so expected that it went beyond voluntary work to basically required after-hours work. And even if it’s not for a “project” or something, people are forced to be accessible at all hours. It’s absurd.

  13. It’s so true. I never thought about how complex the situation is, but you described it very well. IN my case my labor is not stolen anymore, I work for myself.
    dojo recently posted…Freelancing: The complete guide for running a successful home based businessMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 23, 2013 at 10:05 am said:

      Same here! There are pros and cons with all situations but at least I get paid for the hours I work and when I’m done, I’m done!

  14. “Because the American appetite for low prices is a perfect fit for China’s abundant supply of untapped labor. ”

    This is something I think about often. We have turned into a disposable society. We buy cheap junk that breaks. We then replace it with more cheap junk. It’s a race to the bottom.

    A while ago, I was reading about Germany. Over there, consumers are more likely to buy a high quality item, even if it costs more. They also try to buy stuff made in their own country.

    “Confirm that you are a Seahawks fan” Hilarious!
    Mr. 1500 recently posted…Thursday Rant: Solid Gold $hitMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on October 24, 2013 at 6:13 am said:

      I was in Norway quite a few years ago. It was the same thing. No one owned cheap crap. Well-made furniture was passed down within the family over the years. I’m sure Ikea has spread nowadays, but at the time, there was no fiberboard to be found. People told me the government had rules banning the import of cheaply made goods. Drastically different than our approach!

      Go Hawks! (:

  15. Wilson on October 24, 2013 at 8:05 am said:

    Years ago I instilled some sage advice from Lawrence in Office Space – just leave early on Fri so the boss can’t find you to ask you to work late or the weekend. And bonus – early release on a Fri!

    The hypocrisy on illegal immigration is almost hilarious. My native state has a direct pipeline to hordes of undocumented workers, many of which go on to jobs building houses, assuredly at low wages, leading to higher profits for the home-building corporations. Yet which candidates do these mega-builders invariably support? Let’s just say they’re the ones caricaturing those underpaid, exploited hard workers as vicious head-choppin’ drug mules here to pillage our daughters and crap on apple pie.

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