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Wages siphoned off by 'robber barons' much higher than other forms of burglary

By Liaquath Mirza 

‘When the rich rob the poor it’s called business. When the poor fight back it’s called violence’ – Mark Twain
Winters in southern parts of India are mild and pleasant. For an avid walker like me there is an added bonus in that the park I frequent for my brisk walk routine wears a deserted look at dawn break. Morning walkers tend to avoid morning walks even if the winters are mild.
The day started as usual at 5 AM as I ventured out fully clothed and covered with track pants thick hooded sweat shirt, headphones and sneakers to boot. Even though it’s not show time yet for the sun the park is well illuminated and poses no problems for lone walkers like me ambling about across the joggers track at five in the morning.
My morning routine includes receiving gusty greetings from Somu the park attendant who has to be an early bird for park maintenance. He is a sprightly sprig of a lad in mid-twenties. Unlike me his hard labour doesn’t require him to have an exercise regimen to keep flab under control. Food wise I have a problem of plenty and he has a problem of paucity. Every day he grins and greets ‘good morning Saar’ flashing his pearly white teeth set in a dark chocolate face and every day I wave back and give him an acknowledging smile. We then go about our business… He sweeping and me walking.
But that day there was something amiss. He simply gives me a nod of acknowledgement and glumly goes about sweeping away the fallen leaves in silence. I notice the disharmony in the air and make a mental note to enquire with him. After my walk in the park upon my persistent enquiries he blurted out and mumbled indistinctly that the secretary Saar did not pay the full amount that he agreed to pay for cleaning the two overhead storage water tanks of his house. 
He had agreed to pay 600 rupees to clean up both the tanks and after getting them cleaned shoved 200 rupees in Somu’s hands saying that even the 200 rupees for the two tanks was more than what he normally would pay for the job. I promised that I will have a chat with the ‘Secretary Saar’ regarding the short payment. Though I don’t see any point in trying to reason out with an unreasonable man who is capable of robbing a poor man out of his labour.
The incident left me thinking at length about everyday instances of “wage theft” that abound. Theft of wages big and small. Theft of wages from the educated as well as the uneducated. Theft of wages from both the white and blue collars… From the mental labour as well as the physical labour. Such everyday theft happens quite routinely and we seldom sit up and take notice.
And here I am not even thinking of Marx’s labour surplus exploitation. This is just reneging on even the agreed upon contract in a capitalist world. Theft of worker wages plain and simple.
Like any so-called ‘armchair activist’ I googled on news and articles about wage theft across the world and in particular reference to instances in India. As usual I received tonnes of information and stats on wage thefts particularly in the context of USA. I hardly got any information on India. Our Government firmly believes in partially following the three monkeys of Look, See and Hear No Evil. Plus fully following a fourth category of monkeys: they collect no data, 'coz if there is no data then there is no record of evil.
The Raja doesn’t want its Praja to see, hear and talk evil about deeds of governance. And in turn the Raja will not publish data on evil. Neat little arrangement. And for those stupid stupid people who dare to see, hear and talk about evils they reserve spaces in Krishna Janmasthan. They wink at the myriad agencies under their control to bully, harass and harangue into submission. If not then put them behind bars without bail and let them rot for eternity.
True followers of ‘saam, daam, dand, bhed’ style of governance. All acts of MISA, POTA, TADA NASA (National security act NSA) are important tools in the Government’s kitty to wave ‘tata’ to the chronically rebellious.
In any case the purpose of this article is to sensitize the readers on scale and magnitude of wage theft and not bore them with a research paper full of dry factual statements.

Wage theft

When I talk about wage theft, I also refer to theft of time by the petty bourgeoisie and the not so petty bourgeoisies who don’t bat an eye lid extracting extra time from their employees big and small while cutting back on their salaries and wages. Wage theft simply is when a worker is paid less than what she or he is legally entitled. Wait there’s more:
  • Wage theft is when there is no pay for overtime.
  • When the employee is forced to work off the clock.
  • When the employee is denied meal breaks.
  • When the restaurant owners/ managers appropriate customers’ tips on some pretext.
  • When management withholds a worker’s earned benefits.
  • When the head honchos of platform economy or the more popular term, gig economy, deliberately misclassify their workers as independent contractors to rob them of their rightful dues. When the suited thugs of a company do not pay the last salary of an employee who resigns and goes elsewhere.
Let me quote some statistics to drive home the point of scale and proportions of wage theft. I am giving the data of United States and I am sure the situation will be no better elsewhere. My hunch is that we would be far worse off here in India.
Take a look at the US data: 
  • Societal loss due to car theft -- $ 8.86 billion; 
  • Burglary house breaking -- $ 2.66 billion; 
  • Normal theft -- $ 1.62 billion; 
  • Wage theft -- $ 15.00 billion.
Simple addition of all the rest of the thefts put together totals up to 13.14 billion as against a whopping 15 billion of wage theft siphoned off by our dear robber barons. And this figure is by no means an exaggerated one but rather a very conservative estimate.
The world renowned Economic Policy Institute estimates wage theft at a whopping 50 billion dollars a year. And of this theft the most impacted workers are daily wage earners, undocumented immigrants. As much as two-thirds of wage theft is from this class of workers alone. The reason is simple – they have least bargaining power, they are the most vulnerable and they have the least ability to fight back with prolonged litigation.
When they try to fight back they lose out on what the nerds call ‘opportunity cost’ which you and I can understand it as the time or wages lost in legal wrangles when that same time could be utilized to earn a living. In simple terms they simply cannot afford the luxury and expense of going after the thugs and instead could work elsewhere to put food on the table.
The scourge of wage theft, while very rampant in unorganized sector/ informal sector, afflicts organized formal work spaces too. Let us look at a few instances of wage theft that happens in broad day light: The instances cited here are anecdotal and originate from lived experiences and observations. But that does not take away the fact that they are not in any way insignificant.

Day Ends

Have you ever noticed that bankers (junior/ mid-level officers) manning the branches do not have specific shut down timings? They do get tracked for log-in time in the morning but their logout depends on the mercies of their IT systems, and their bosses sitting in controlling offices who pass diktats to the IT guys not to allow Day End till some daily quota of loans or deposits or some fancy schemes is completed.
Those unfortunate staff of branches that fail to drum up business as dictated by their controlling office bosses are doomed to stay in the branches till late in the night completely at the mercy of boss men relenting and letting off with a warning and allowed to go ahead with the Day End process. On a good day when no such pressures are there, when the network co-operates and the IT systems don’t develop a glitch the bank branch staff (read junior level officers) are able to do the Day End procedure a good two hours after bank closure time.
But when human (boss men and women) and non-human controllers (IT network, computers, printers, banking system applications) decide to turn cranky then the frontline staff is forced to lock their grill gates and attend to their other works while patiently waiting and watching for down systems to be up or their boss men/boss women to take a deep breath and wave the green signal for Day End.
The world renowned Economic Policy Institute estimates wage theft at a whopping 50 billion dollars a year
The poor chaps are at the mercies of both inhuman and non-human controlling forces and they may end up trudging back to their homes at well past eleven in the night and sometimes even more. This is an every working day routine for the poor bankers. Such a highly stressful, sedentary working style takes its toll on the Bank employees who are text book case examples of playing hosts to various lifestyle diseases ranging from spondylitis, diabetes, Hypertension, heart disease to stomach ulcers and the list goes on and on.
There are so many instances of employees collapsing on their counters and breathing their last. This daylight robbery of wages (more like tube light robbery) is an unacknowledged and unrecognized phenomenon that afflicts Indian Banking industry. More often than not the Day Ends for them at midnight and sometimes well past midnight when authorities get such brilliant ideas like demonetization.

Gig employees

Gig employees who are not even treated as employees (they are given fanciful titles such as ‘independent contractors’ or ‘business partners’ just to avoid employer responsibility that comes with employment) is another modern day affliction where employer accountability is next to nil and the poor independent contractors are left to fend for themselves. If one wants to turn rich overnight then this platform economy is a sure fire shortcut method to riches.
I am sure most of us would have got a call from an Uber or Ola driver enquiring about the payment mode. And I am sure the driver would have requested only for cash payment. That is so because the platform owners never pay their dues on time or resort to hefty deductions citing one reason or the other. You would find the drivers begging for 5 star ratings from their patrons just to avoid hefty deductions.
When the hail riding platform apps were in nascent stages they splurged on advertisements beckoning professional drivers to leave what they were doing and join them for lucrative returns. Initially to reel them in they did indeed dole out handsome returns thus baiting other fish in the driver pool. Some poor chaps from villages even resorted to selling their marginal land owning of half an acre just to buy a car for joining Ola or Uber tribe.
You see the grotesque beauty of this platform economy is that the employees have to bring their own infrastructure to participate in this economic activity. They have a fancy name for this too – BYOD, which is bring your own device. All these delivery apps such as swiggy, Zomato and many more advertise for manpower and clearly state that only applicants who own a two wheeler and be a license holder need apply.
Tidy little arrangement where the capital of the capitalist is also absent except for developing the fancy software for running the app. The customers are taken for a ride in the name of peak pricing, surge pricing depending upon demand and the drivers are exploited in the name of poor ratings and such other fancy coinages. The gig owner thus fleeces both his clients as well as his employees though he calls them ‘independent contractors’.
The list goes on and if one has to sit down and write about such instances one can start endless series of day light robberies that are perpetuated by respectable people of business world. Take for instance a most popular chain of successful dental clinics in India who employ budding dentists fresh out of colleges and grind them like fish on a grind stone and yet pay them paltry salaries which do not even match up with wages of blue collar workers.
This after a rigorous education of around five years and toil of acquiring the requisite skills to be a doctor and finally ending up working for a corporate giant out to make a quick buck pushing his employees to push for costly cosmetic procedures. It’s like there is no overseeing body which monitors such unethical business practices.

Day light robbery

Sometimes the day light robberies are so normalized that we the spectators are thoroughly rendered insensitive to the other person’s plight. Take for instance, before the large scale firing of employees our spaceman hero Musk circulates an internal mail to twitter employees that they should be willing to clock in a minimum of 12 hours a day and if they don’t agree they can pack their bags and leave. . Such open threats to put in more or get out are so normalized that we fail to see the daylight robbing of fellow human being’s sweat and toil by gangster CEOs.
Finally I would like to end this piece with a heartening news that comes from Britain, where a disgruntled construction worker got on to the excavator he operates and went on a rampage demolishing the walls and floors of a building he helped construct. He destroyed what he helped build because he was not paid by the thugs who employed him.
A cheery bit of news isn’t it? A strong antidote of sorts to a certain Bulldozer Mama and a Bulldozer Baba going after the meek and weak with their JCBs right?

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