Employee exploitation could be legal or illegal.

Illegal employee exploitation happens when an employer oversteps the legal protections of their workers for their own benefit.

Legal exploitation occurs mainly when the employee is demanded to perform tasks that are damaging to their wellbeing or is not compensated fairly, but those behaviors are not explicitly illegal.

In both cases higher awareness of ones rights, needs and contributions can help protect them, their income and their career.

Continue reading in order to learn how to defend yourself against harmful practices.


Obviously, exploitation is mainly the fault of the organization that exploits its workers for its own gains. But why do workers allow that?

Your job is your main source of income

The no-brainer. You need money. Competition on the labor market is high and is getting higher. There is a lot to be said about stagnant wages, unfair income distribution on corporate level, a culture of diminishing the achievements on low-level employees, etc.

The point is, there is high pressure on employees to go out of their way to show results, to make sacrifice and to prove their value.

When you have to pay your rent or your mortgage, you have to put food on the table, to provide a good life for your children, and in a dynamic labor market, where you know you are not irreplaceable, you will do pretty much anything to keep your job.

Your job is your source of stability

It is not just financial stability.

A lot of employees count on their employer for health insurance. If you or an immediate family member has a preexisting medical condition, you will be unwilling to explore your career options.

Your credit history will be affected by how much you are earning, but your chances to receive credit from most financial institutions will also be influenced by how long you have held your job and how high your position is.

Being too fast to bail on bad working conditions will affect your future career. Hiring managers do screen your resume for the length of time you have spent working for a particular employer. It is a sign of your loyalty. Bailing could burn bridges for you.

You job is the reason for being accepted in your community

If you work as a teacher, a lawyer, a priest, a police officer, or a doctor, your job is not just a job. It is a place in your community you want to keep, no matter how much it costs you.

You job is your main source of self esteem

Most importantly, we are taught our career is our best way to contribute to society. Organized labor is what makes humanity tick. And you want to do your part well.

It is very difficult to be objective when we evaluate our performance and we often adopt the false logic that if we do everything they ask of us, we are doing well.

That is what makes us prone to exploitation.


A lot of employees feel the pressures of their job may be overwhelming at times. This list is an attempt to display a good amount of the dangers of exploitation.

There is a high chance that at different points in time you have felt degrees of the methods displayed below. It should be noted that those are, unfortunately, popular practices.

Whether or not the scope of the offense is something that oversteps the line is up to you to decide.

Overworking employees

This is the most common way to exploit workers. And it is also the most complex. Overworking could be equally the fault of the employer and the employee.

The employer is responsible to meet quotas, show results, meet budgets and keep the organization going. They work result-over-methods. They can establish or reinforce a culture of overworking where spending time after hours is expected, and not complying is frowned upon.

The employee succumbs to the pressures: of the competitive labor market; of the need to earn money; of the need to do well at their job; of the need to contribute to the organization; of the need to be better, to be recognized and maybe even promoted.

Statistics show that 85% of women and 88% of men overwork themselves regularly. The higher the employee position, the lower the percentage. That comes to illustrate lower level employees are more often the victim of exploitation.

Let’s say the need of job satisfaction is the main drive behind it.

Does it work?


Only 33.2% of overworking women and only 40% of overworking men are satisfied with their job.

How to defend yourself against overworking:

  • Know your legal rights. Legal regulations vary between countries but most often you will be only required to work a certain amount of hours per day and or per week. Any time spent on work after that would be considered overtime. Only a certain amount of overtime is allowed, and the compensation for it is multiplied by an index. That index could vary based the amount of afterhours time you have spent, on your position in the company, and or on the precise day you worked – weekends and bank holidays could be more expensive. And in some very rare cases, overtime is completely forbidden. Talk to HR and or to a lawyer to confirm your research.
  • Plan in advance. It happens very often that employees work after hours because they need to finish high priority tasks. Plan your week in advance and make sure you know what are your top tasks. Write down milestones for each day. Make sure checking all of those will constitute your work as ‘done’. At the end of the day, at the end of the week if someone asks you to stay late, you will be able to say you have done your job and you don’t need to do anything else. That way you will also not be confused about your contributions and will not feel the need to stay.
  • Shut down at home. Overworkers have the bad habit of working even after they leave the office and go home. Make sure you have a strategy to avoid that. There are obviously exceptions if your position has management responsibilities, but make sure you limit it down to emergencies. Only.
  • Take your breaks. Vacations, weekends, lunch breaks. The rule here is similar to working from home. Just make sure you keep it to a minimum and talk to someone if it gets out of hand. Do not miss a single break. You will find you are really more productive, you get more things done, and, interestingly enough, you get more respect out of your boss, your employees and your colleagues if you have more respect for yourself in that way.
  • Respond to repercussions. If you have done everything right so far, you must have dealt with your internal pressures to overwork yourself. Now you know the pressure is not coming from you. If the pressure is still there, it is not coming from you. Try and stop completely. If you become a victim of any repercussions, deal with them in time, with balance – keep things civil and proportionate, but don’t budge.

Exploiting employees for their appearance

It is not exclusive to women, but indeed predominantly women are affected by this form of exploitation.

As society is focused more on the appearance of women rather than men, that phenomenon is also reflected in pressures in the workplace.

Attractive women are supposed to sell. The way they look is, therefore, in various ways, implied to have effect on their professional success. And it goes well beyond just being ‘presentable’.

First off, women are being pressured to lose weight. The issue with women’s weight is well known and very often discussed nowadays when it comes to the modeling industry.

However, it does not stop there.

Any time a woman’s job involves working with people, she is at risk to be pressured to change.

And it does not stop at her weight. The second very popular exploitation of women for their appearance is their smile. Women are often asked to smile more – in a way men aren’t.

Third, women of color are being asked to change their hair – straighten it, smooth it out, or wear a weave. They are being told they do not look presentable with an afro or a protective hairstyle – if they wear it in cornrows or dreadlocks.

Those are just some of the common ways women are exploited for their appearance.

How to defend yourself against the pressure to look ‘presentable’:

  • Define ‘presentable’ for yourself. Ask yourself how important your appearance is in your work. Calculate it against your other responsibilities. If you are a fitness instructor, you do need to work on your body. If you are a waitress, you don’t. If you are a hairdresser, you probably need to change your hair every once in a while, if you work in a bank – you don’t. It is as simple as that.
  • Prioritize and analyze. It is only exploitation if you are required to put unreasonable effort into your appearance. Does your appearance have, in any way, a connection to your field of work? If it does not than your appearance should not be any sort of requirement for you doing your job.

Sexual harassment

According to The Human Rights Commission, Sexual harassment is ‘unwelcome sexual behavior, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.’

It is categorized as sexual harassment when it happens at the workplace, but also when it happens at work-related events or between people that have a labor relationship.

With the ‘Me too’ movement a lot of cases of harassment are surfacing.

Some scary statistics tell us that:

  • 0,01% of men and as much as 20% of women have experienced violent sexual assault at least once in their life. 8% of those assaults happen at work.
  • Between 25% and 85% of women have experienced a form of sexual harassment at work.
  • 75% of harassment victims experienced retaliation when they spoke up.

Harassment comes in many forms and, unfortunately, only the most severe of those can be detected, proven and punished. There can be other forms of sexual harassment that move on the edge of the legal and could still be harmful to your life and career.

How NOT to defend yourself against sexual harassment:

  • You cannot smile the right or wrong way to prevent sexual harassment from happening to you.
  • You cannot dress the right or wrong way to prevent sexual harassment from happening to you.

How to defend yourself against sexual harassment:

  • Preventing sexual harassment is mainly the responsibility of the employer. Do your research in advance to signing your contract. See if you can gather some preliminary information – check for any legal cases or even rumors about workers in the company. Ask your interviewers about recent workshops or trainings.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and your relationships. Be careful of any time you are asked for anything or are offered anything by someone other than your direct manager. Ideally, be sure any offence is intentional and conscious.
  • In the best case scenario, you should feel safe enough to confront the harasser immediately. Tell them why you find their behavior offensive and how it is harmful to your career. If the unwanted behavior does not stop, feel free to seek legal advice. Be confidential unless you believe the culprit’s behavior may affect other victims.

Maternity/paternity leave repercussions

Maternity, paternity or parental leave is a curious phenomenon.

On the one side, we have a societal need, dictated by the wellbeing of new mothers, fathers, newborns and adopted children all over the world. The new member of the family needs the undivided attention of their parents in the first days and weeks in their home.

On the other, governments, law makers and businesses all seem to abdicate from their responsibility to allow and protect that right of family time.

New mothers and especially new fathers are often betrayed by their government and are forced to take up their time off as vacation or sick leave.

Even in countries where paternity and maternity leave is abundant, such as Japan, pressures to come back to the workplace discourage new parents from taking their time off.

How to defend yourself against Maternity/paternity leave repercussions:

  • Do your research in advance. Make sure you know your legalities as soon as you know a child is on the way. Laws vary between countries and sometimes even municipalities. Speak to HR and/or a lawyer to confirm your rights and responsibilities in this situation.
  • Talk to your partner. As soon as you know what your options are, figure out a plan. Factor in your legal rights, respect each other’s wishes and take into account your financial situation. Write down a detailed plan.
  • Be forthright. As soon as you have your plan you need to present it to your direct manager. Be kind and respectful, be decent and understanding that you are putting them in a difficult situation. Tell them you trust them to support you. Assure them you will be available, but you want to limit your involvement to emergencies. The rest will go great – you already have a fool-proof plan. Do not budge on your decisions regardless of their reaction. You have your research and you know you are in the right.
  • Announce. Your work will most probably have to be taken over by your colleagues. Together with your direct manager display and explain your plan for action. Assure everyone you will help them get into your shoes well in advance – no surprises. You will be available for questions, but ask for the basic decency to only be contacted when absolutely necessary – explain you are going away for your family’s sake and want to make the most of it.
  • Snap back. When you come back from your leave you will need some time to get back in shape. Make sure it is limited. Announce in advance: ‘Thank you for covering for me. It was the best thing for my family and you contributed. I still need some time to get my head back in the game but I promise – in TWO WEEKS time I will be ready. Everything will be just as it was before.’ That way you make It clear you were gone temporarily. You planned it well and you know what you are doing. You should never be passed over for a promotion.

Deny adequate compensation

Inadequate compensation is one of the least well protected forms of exploitation. Employers can always hide behind the notion that your pay has to be proportionate to your contributions. And your contributions can always be diminished if it gets to that.

We already discussed one form of unfair compensation above – when employers require overtime work, but do not pay for it fairly.

There are other forms of unfair compensation.

Unpaid internships. One report from the e All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility in the UK concludes that interns must be paid after their first month of their employment.

At the same time, the Guardian reports that ‘Inflation and increasing rents have pushed the cost of a one-month unpaid placement in the capital to a minimum of £1,019, meaning that a six-month internship with no pay would cost a person at least £6,114.’

The gender pay gap. The American Association of University Women has issued ‘The Simple Truth’ – a report with statistics and information to help understand the scope, the origins and the possible solutions of the issue.

According to the report:

‘In 2016, women working full time in the United States typically were paid just 80 percent of what men were paid, a gap of 20 percent…The gap has narrowed since 1960, due largely to women’s progress in education and workforce participation and to men’s wages rising at a slower rate. At the rate of change between 1960 and 2016 women are expected to reach pay equity with men in 2059.’

The report acknowledges several reasons why the gender pay gap exists. Among them are the gender-based occupation choices, the gender-based parenting bias (the implication that women are seen as more responsible for the children), but also the gender bias and the employer practices of pay secrecy and pay negotiations.

‘…After accounting for college major, occupation, economic sector, hours worked, months unemployed since graduation, GPA, type of undergraduate institution, institution selectivity, age, geographical region, and marital status, AAUW found a remaining 7 percent difference between the earnings of male and female college graduates one year after graduation. That gap jumped to 12 percent 10 years after college graduation…’

Refusing deserved pay raise

Wages are stagnant. The raise in productivity of the workforce is, unfortunately, not reflected in the raise of average wages. Refusing a well-deserved pay raise happens for no other reason than to save money.

Management is constantly pushed to restrict budgets, mostly in order to increase profits. At all costs.

Denying a pay raise is a relatively easy way, believe it or not, to keep the budget within its limits. It is easier than negotiating with suppliers, foreseeing market crises, or raising prices to customers.

How to defend your right to a well-deserved pay raise:

  • Know your value. Before everything else, you must be completely sure the pay raise you are asking for is indeed well deserved. Make a common-sense check. How long have you been in the company? What are your undeniable contributions? Do you have the right attitude? Do you receive appropriate feedback? Common sense will tell you if you are being objective in your reasoning.
  • Know your comparative value. Unfortunately, it is indeed the easiest for a company to save on bonuses for its employees. That is, unless it comes to loosing top talent. Don’t be afraid to research your options in case you would have to make the ultimate choice. Keep on the same wage, or leave. Can you go to better conditions?
  • Speak to your direct manager. Respectfully, and with an open mind, request a meeting with your direct manager. Be calm and collected. Present your case with confidence and facts. Explain why you believe you deserve more.
  • Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Pay negotiations could be difficult if you perceive it as having discussions about your personal value. Try and be objective. Do you know what you deserve? Can you get it somewhere else? Say what you want and stand behind your numbers.
  • Wait for the right time. And the right time is not never or forever. But it is very possible it is not right now. If your management explains you should wait for the next budget year, or several months until the company is in a better financial situation, assess that against your choices. But don’t forget to factor in loyalty towards your employer.


The difference between being simply employed and being exploited is the same as the difference between being utilized and being used.

If you are being utilized you are a part of a labor relationship with an organization where both parties find it equally beneficial. You are selling your work to your company and it is paying the price.

If you are being exploited and used, the organization is using its position of power over your life to break that balance of mutual benefit in its favor. In such situations, it often happens that top management is cutting corners so they benefit more from the hard work of their low-level employees.

And the low-level employees allow that if they are not well aware of their value, of the unfair power balance and the unfair practices.

Educating and protecting yourself is your best bet for a successful career and personal fulfillment.

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