Saturday, January 24, 2004

More on prison labour

The Department of Corrections has responded to the questions on prisoner's employment rights posed in my previous post with a few answers and a PDF outlining their general policy. This bit sums up their position quite nicely:

The provision of employment for inmates by the Department does not constitute a formal employment relationship. Rather the employment is part of skill acquisition and should be regarded as a training initiative. Inmates do not have, therefore, the same access as free workers to wages, rights and other remedies. They do have protections under Corrections legislation and regulations. Inmates are not employees of the Department and are not, therefore, subject to the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. However, the Department will observe the provisions of the Act for all inmate employment activities...

(My emphesis; no link, because its not on the web, however there's a FAQ on inmate employment here)

This isn't so bad when prisoners are working on community schemes, or even on "internal self-sufficiency" activities such as cooking and cleaning; it's easy to see these tasks as training and a way of giving prisoners something meaningful to do (both of which are laudable goals). The problem comes when they are working in a commercial enterprise which competes with the private sector (which Corrections claims to try not to do, but clearly does), or (worse) are rented out to private enterprise as part of a cooperative venture (something Corrections wants to do a lot more of). In both cases they not only displace ordinary workers, but also exert downward pressure on pay and conditions. And then there's that troubling aspect of slavery again - the workforce is literally captive, paid less than $1 an hour, and while they are technically volunteers, only a Libertarian would regard the choice as being free. If a private employer did this, they would be prosecuted for running a sweatshop, if not for kidnapping and slavery. Is it really any better if the government is doing it?