Thursday, January 22, 2004

Prison labour in New Zealand

I'm appalled to see that the American disease of selling prison labour is alive and well in New Zealand.

The Corrections Department claims that they "operate under the same commercial disciplines as private sector organisations and our prices are market-based", but this dodges the real question, which is "How much do they pay their workforce"?

According to the people I spoke to at the Department of Corrections, the answer is "up to $25 a week" - substantially below the minimum wage, let alone market rates. Participation is voluntary, but as refusal is bound to affect parole and whether a prisoner is regarded as "cooperative", there's a great deal of implicit coercion involved. I am still waiting for answers from Corrections on

  • Whether prisoners are paid a nominally higher rate, from which deductions are made for accomodation and security costs (which, given the coercion involved, is running a Company Store; the thought of charging prisoners for their imprisonment is also fairly horrible).
  • Whether prisoners have any sort of employment contract when working in an inmate employment scheme.
  • Whether prisoners engaged in work enjoy the full protection of New Zealand's labour laws - public holidays, safety standards, the right to collectively bargain for higher wages and, if necessary, strike. (I don't for an instant expect that they do, but it's an interesting question nonetheless).

I'm also waiting for responses from the Department of Labour on some of the above issues as well. It's not clear whether Corrections is breaching New Zealand labour laws, or whether what they are doing is perfectly legal (they may have an exemption) - but it is clear that it is wrong.

What we have here is the government using its coercive power over prisoners for commercial advantage. Market-weenies should be concerned because they are competing with private companies, while stacking the deck in their favour by ignoring regulations that affect everybody else. But I am more concerned with the human rights aspects. There's a word for people who are kept behind bars and work all day for the benefit of others - they're called "slaves". What's the difference between this and government-run slavery? It's awfully difficult to see...