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Wage Theft and the Exploitation of Disadvantaged Workers

June 26, 2019

Laws must protect the rights and dignity of workers

By Erica Dombrowski

Law Students on Workers’ Rights Series

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

The biggest challenges facing workers rights in the future revolve around wage theft and the exploitation of disadvantaged groups. For centuries, the structure behind business has reflected that the higher the rank, the less work is necessary to reach the top levels of companies and corporations. Our society’s emphasis on top level earned positions is not misplaced. However, often times these positions are not achieved, but rather handed to members of a privileged class. When a member of a wealthy family is given a position they did not earn they will never truly represent the rights of workers. The disconnect between workers’ rights and those who choose to lessen those rights lies in profit motivated businesses.

Profit motivation is often placed above the rights and dignity of workers. Corporations such as Apple, Walmart, and Nike outsource jobs to avoid meeting regulations for workers rights set in the United States. Some of these violations are so horrific they qualify as violations of basic human rights. Profit motivation pushes the rights of workers and humans beneath the desire to become increasingly more profitable as a company. The biggest challenge facing workers’ rights in the future is the ability of corporations to bypass the regulations set in place for workers.

What good are workers’ rights in America if American companies bypass regulations by outsourcing labor to non regulated countries? Seemingly, there is no national viable solution to workers’ rights issues when outsourcing is available to corporations seeking to increase profit margins at the expense of human life and well being. The next step is to face worker exploitations internationally as a global community. However, international policies are often hard to enforce due to the intricacies of determining which countries pay the costs of enforcement. 

As an American worker you have little to no protection from corporations outsourcing jobs to avoid the legal standards they are bound to within our jurisdiction. Furthermore, as a worker in any country you are being subjected to unfair treatment by a foreign entity simply because your government does not protect you in the ways other countries do. This exploitation is the greatest injustice being perpetrated against workers globally today. Workers have no ability to protect themselves from this exploitation in countries with no regulations. As a global community we need to introduce standards and repercussions that can be enforced in all countries.

Another challenge faced by advocates of workers’ rights is wage theft. Wage theft is the act of employers reducing wages illegally for workers. Wage theft can come in many forms, such as misclassifying workers, not paying overtime, or paying employees less than minimum wage. Today, wage theft often comes in the form of legal non-paid positions that are often required by schools and graduate programs. Internships have become a new tool by which employers can exploit workers for profit.

Internships have become a vital part of resumes that are necessary for positions that require high levels of education. However, in order to be able to work an unpaid internship you must be able to sacrifice hours of your week to go towards unpaid work rather than paid work. For workers who cannot afford to sacrifice hours of their paid service, this creates a divide in who is able to benefit from internships. Internships should not be allowed to continue if they are unpaid because this labor should be protected, as it is for any other job.

Lastly, one of the other biggest challenges faced by workers today is the “tipping” system. It can be argued that the tipping system is another form of wage theft. In many states, employers under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act are able to pay far less than minimum wage in exchange for employees making tips. The tipping system is inherently flawed, because tips are not a requirement and should only be considered an additional sum of money awarded for exceptional service. However, in America we have a level of expectation surrounding tips that is calculated into living wages required by employers. A price should include the total cost of the service and leave tipping as a welcome gesture rather than a requirement. 

Tipping practices can benefit many employees, however it also harms many others. Tipping puts the responsibility of wages in the hands of accepted and anticipated gestures rather than on the employer. There is no guarantee or requirement for tips which means there is no guarantee of certain wages for employees. Tipping practices in America are one of the most immediate challenges faced by workers today.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Erica Dombrowski identifies several critical factors affecting workers’ rights by bringing a global perspective, showing how outsourcing can leave workers with no legal protections. Exploitative labor practices hit vulnerable workers the hardest, often leaving them with few protections. Similarly, wage theft often targets disadvantaged workers, including tipped employees who rely on gratuities to earn a living. I’ve seen firsthand how wage theft affects restaurant workers, for example, as tip theft takes money out of the pockets of servers. Without stronger worker protections, many of the exploitative practices Dombrowski identifies will unfortunately continue. 

Erica Dombrowski graduated from the University of Buffalo in 2018 with a degree in political science. Dombrowski joins the University at Buffalo School of Law as part of the class of 2022 and plans to advocate for people with disabilities as a lawyer.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients.

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