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Sonic Teaches The Kids (And Everyone Else) About Wage Theft

Sonic the Hedgehog stands on an oceanside cliff in Sonic Frontiers

Although TikTok users can spread misinformation as easily as anyone else on the Internet, plenty are using the platform for good. This includes The Swoletariat, an animator and designer whose bio describes him as a “buff gay leftist.” He’s been banned multiple times on the platform for posting anti-capitalist edits but he keeps coming back. Now, he’s got a new series in which Sonic the Hedgehog and his friends explain the concept of wage theft and why it’s such a huge issue for workers.

In the first video, captioned “Sonic sayz worker exploitation is no good,” Sonic relays what Tails has taught him about wage theft to Knuckles, who’s instantly ready to knock people’s heads together. According to Sonic (and the Economic Policy Institute), $50 billion is stolen from workers each year in the US.

“So they say you’re workin together and then they STEAL from you?!” Knuckles replies. “That sounds like something [the villain] Eggman would do.” And before Sonic can stop him, Knuckles is racing off to get those stolen “rings” back.

In an additional video, Sonic goes more in-depth about what wage theft is and how it happens. He encourages viewers to keep track of their hours and wages on their own and to speak up if something doesn’t add up. In another, Knuckles adds up how other types of theft in the US compare to wage theft ($15 billion to $50 billion annually) and reveals that $13 trillion in surplus value is stolen from US workers each year.

If this is the first you’re hearing about wage theft, you’re not alone. The Swoletariat’s Sonic videos have racked up nearly 1 million views, which is relatively small in comparison to the viral cat and dance videos watched on TikTok every day. However, the comments reveal a mix of responses from users ranging from shock to cynicism.

What is wage theft?

Wage theft occurs when employers pay workers less than what they are legally entitled to earn for their labor. Examples of this include employers paying less than minimum wage, refusing to pay overtime, or not allowing workers to take breaks. Employers may also require “off the clock” work or take workers’ tips, all of which add up to wages that should be going into workers’ paychecks but don’t get reported.

In some instances, employers will give workers fancy-sounding titles in order to pay them salaried wages that don’t include overtime, even though they may be doing the exact same job as an hourly employee who does receive overtime. In February, researchers from the University of Texas and Harvard Business School revealed that inflated titles result in more than $4 billion in overtime payments going back into company pockets, which means workers are paid 13 percent less than what they should be earning.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “more than $3 billion in stolen wages was recovered on behalf of workers by the U.S. Department of Labor, state departments of labor and attorneys general, and through class and collective action litigation.”

Unfortunately, the only way to recover stolen wages in most cases is through litigation, which people living below the poverty line often cannot afford. Wage theft disproportionately affects immigrants, people of color, and women, who are already more likely to work low-wage jobs than white men.

How is surplus value related to worker exploitation?

In Marxist theory, surplus value is defined as the difference between what it costs to manufacture a project and what is made through the sale of that product. In capitalism, we define this as profit. Surplus value is related to worker exploitation because the rate of exploitation is the ratio of unpaid labor done to wages paid.

Basically, when employees create a product that is sold to the public through their employer, the employer makes a profit. The employer also “owns” that product, even though it was manufactured by its employees. Those employees are underpaid and overworked, meaning they consistently produce profit for their employer without ever seeing those wages in their paychecks.

The EPI reports that productivity has increased 3.7 times as much as pay since 1979. Although workers are 64.6 percent more productive, hourly wages have only increased by 17.3 percent. This is what Knuckles refers to in The Swoletariat’s TikTok. Although surplus value is possibly a lesser-known and harder-to-track form of wage theft, it’s a key factor in explaining worker exploitation and its dangers.

(featured image: Sega)

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Samantha Puc (she/they) is a fat, disabled, lesbian writer and editor who has been working in digital and print media since 2010. Their work focuses primarily on LGBTQ+ and fat representation in pop culture and their writing has been featured on Refinery29, Bitch Media, them., and elsewhere. Samantha is the co-creator of Fatventure Mag and she contributed to the award-winning Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives. They are an original cast member of Death2Divinity, and they are currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction at The New School. When Samantha is not working or writing, she loves spending time with her cats, reading, and perfecting her grilled cheese recipe.