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.
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 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 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.