Mazen Labban, "Wage Theft, Wage as Theft"
Perhaps the most innovative form of wage theft today is the so-called "payroll card." This is a form of theft by means of payment that is only slightly more elaborate than stealing wages by paying workers in cash off the books. Payroll cards are prepaid debit cards that companies use as a means of paying hourly wages instead of a check or direct deposit. Its ubiquity has prompted an investigation by the office of the Attorney General of New York State, who is also investigating the "wage practices" of fast food restaurants suspected of swindling workers out of their wages. Nobody has yet called the payment of wages by means of prepaid debit card a form of wage theft, but the payroll card is just that: another form of wage theft except that in this instance unpaid labor accrues to the banker directly instead of getting there through the direct exploiter. Certainly, as with other methods that reduce the wage, payroll cards increase the profits of the direct employer: by some estimates a company employing 500 workers could save $21,000 per year by paying wages in the form of payroll cards instead of checks. But thieving in this case is generalized, demonstrating the class nature of exploitation. Whether employers force workers to accept wages in the form of prepaid debit cards as a condition of employment is yet to be determined; but what is evident is that by paying wages in the form of payroll cards employers force workers to relinquish part of their wages to the cards' issuer as a condition of access to their wages. One worker at McDonald's who earns $7.25/hr pays JPMorgan Chase between $40 and $50 every month in fees associated with his payroll card -- i.e., while at McDonald's that worker works seven hours per month for JPMorgan Chase for free. This could all look like chump change for the banks that are too big to bother, but payroll cards, unlike regular debit and credit cards, are outside the purview of regulations on fees that have cost the banks billions in lost income. The payroll card is generalized wage theft that could become a new site of accumulation: $34 billion was deposited into active payroll cards in 2012, and it is expected that $68.9 billion in wages will be loaded onto payroll cards by 2017. . . . What is ultimately stolen from the worker is not simply an amount of earned income or unpaid labor, but the worker's very life. In the strictest sense labor-power, whose existence is inseparable from the existence of its possessor, is the worker herself -- the worker's "muscles, nerves, bones and brains." Thus by selling her labor-power, the worker sells her living self, her life-activity, to another person piecemeal -- eight, ten or twelve hours at a time, "one day like the next" as a young Marx put it.
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