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Stolen Wages: Coming to a Workplace Near You

Stolen Wages: Coming to a Workplace Near You

photo credit: WisconsinJobsNow via photopin cc

By Vicky Ni

Senior Attorney

What do fast-food workers and high-tech workers have in common? Neither have any bargaining power in their workplaces or in their industry, as Pandodaily’s Mark Ames has recently observed. Both have wages stolen from them and their opportunities limited, often without their knowledge.

This may surprise you, because high-tech workers supposedly have good jobs—the kind that pay well, require sought-after skills, and are the kind of forward-looking, future economy jobs to which we’re all supposed to aspire. You’d think they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from fast-food workers, who work at or even below the minimum wage in jobs that require little training and have little prospects for upward mobility.

They are very different, in many obvious ways. But they’re not so different in some not-so-obvious ways.

It turns out that high-tech workers also face major obstacles to fair pay because of the overwhelming power held by employers. According to the U.S. Justice Department and a class-action lawsuit, major players in the tech industry—including Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe Systems—conspired with each other to limit the wages that tech workers can earn. They did so by agreeing with each other not to actively recruit each other’s employees (so-called “no-poaching” agreements), thereby artificially limiting the demand, opportunity and pay prospects for tech talent.

Possibly a million tech workers were affected by the illegal agreements violating antitrust law. The federal investigation and the civil lawsuit revealed confidential internal company memos documenting the conspiracy to keep salaries low among dozens of tech giants. As just one example, an internal email from Apple’s VP of Human Resources to “All” said: “Please add Google to your ‘hands-off’ list. We recently agreed not to recruit from one another so if you hear of any recruiting they are doing against us, please be sure to let me know. Please also be sure to honor our side of the deal.”

A deal with six of the companies and the Justice Department presumably put an end to the no-poaching agreements in 2010. And now, as a result of a settlement reached just weeks before the class action representing 64,000 workers was to go to trial, the affected workers may get some recompense after all. Details of the settlement are to be released next month.

Wage theft and abuse of workers in America has reached near epidemic levels, and we and other groups have worked on lawsuits to try to reverse the trend.

If you’re reading this, and you’re in a “good” job, you may think the fight for workers for better pay and working conditions has nothing to do with you. But there are powerful incentives for all employers in all industries to keep labor costs down. While those incentives are not in and of themselves a bad thing, they also may compel employers to cross into illegal behavior, distorting the market for fair pay. We should all take notice when this happens, because what’s bad for some workers is bad for all workers.