On the Trade Union Congress’ (TUC, 2019) 15th annual ‘Work Your Proper Hours Day’, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady asserted, ‘It’s not okay for bosses to steal their workers’ time’, pointing to the chronic theft of workers’ time and money in the United Kingdom (UK). Over five million UK workers laboured a total of two billion unpaid hours in 2018 (TUC, 2019), equivalent to 7.5 hours a week per worker, or £32.7 billion of free labour annually. To this can be added £2.6 billion annually for non-payment of holiday entitlements and non-compliance with the minimum wage (Metcalf, 2018).
Wage theft is proscribed under UK law through Part II of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which establishes statutory provisions that protect workers from unlawful wage deductions, defined as ‘any sums payable to the worker in connection with his/her employment’. Despite increasing recognition of wage theft as a problem in academic literature, it is typically analysed in terms of ‘labour market violation’ – unpaid hours, unpaid annual leave and unpaid overtime (Clarke and D’Arcy, 2016; Judge and Cominetti, 2019). We argue that both the legal definition and existing scholarship fail to capture the full range of ways that employers extract unpaid labour time, necessitating a more in-depth conceptualisation of wage theft. Our theory of wage theft incorporates both formal violations of the law and more subtle, informal mechanisms that are not necessarily unlawful, yet still represent the theft of wages via unpaid labour time.
Through an empirical analysis of the experiences of hospitality workers across different settings, the article develops a novel typology of how different types of wage theft are realised. We argue that existing research on wage theft has yet to explicitly link the expenditure of unpaid labour time to the direct theft of time and money wages. The latter should be understood as an appropriation of additional unpaid labour time. It is additional because it occurs over and above the average rate of exploitation as defined by the ratio of paid to unpaid labour time (or value to surplus-value) in a given economy. The article establishes wage theft as an integral part of the capitalist economic system. It offers conceptual originality by demonstrating how wage theft is used by employers to realise profit through the extension of the working day.
More directly, the article draws from a qualitative study of hospitality work to examine two key research questions. First, what distinct forms of wage theft occur in the hospitality setting? Second, how do employers’ practices lead to the theft of employees’ wages? In answering these questions, we can establish the pervasive and systemic nature of wage theft. Hospitality is an ideal setting for such a study, as it is not only the fourth largest sector in the UK (British Hospitality Association (BHA), 2017), but is characterised by some of the highest rates of labour market violations (Metcalf, 2018). Hospitality work is also associated with low pay (Lloyd et al., 2013), long hours (Burrow et al., 2015), migrant worker precarity (Alberti, 2014) and the normalisation of unpaid overtime (Warhurst et al., 2008).
The remainder of this article is structured into four sections. First, it situates recent developments in wage theft within a Marxist theoretical frame. Second, the methodological approach is outlined. Third, the empirical findings establish a novel typology that explains how wage theft is extracted through: (1) unpaid labour time; (2) base wages; and (3) variable wages. It then considers workers’ responses to such forms of exploitation. The article concludes with insights into how wage theft is embedded in the exploitative nature of work under capitalism, arguing that all forms of unpaid labour time constitute a form of theft and therefore contribute to the extraction of surplus-value. Certain forms of wage theft mean that workers are aware of their own exploitation, but due to the coercion of a relatively unregulated labour market, their efforts to resist are restricted.
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