Thursday, July 17, 2008

Prison slave labour comes to New Zealand

One of the nastiest aspects of contemporary American capitalism is its use of prison slave labour. A large captive population (mostly of Afro-American arrested for minor crime or drug offences, or incarcerated for life for trivial offences under "three strikes" laws) are forced to work for a pittance, with their services contracted out to major corporations. Prisoners don't have union, employment, or workplace safety rights, so costs can be kept low. And if they complain about their treatment, you can beat them in the head with a stick. This return to nineteenth-century employment conditions allows US companies such as Dell, KMart and IBM to stay profitable.

Now Labour has introduced this practice in New Zealand. Prisoners at Rimutaka and Auckland Region Women’s Prisons will be assembling photocopiers for Canon. While they'll be getting real training and learning real skills (as opposed to previous prison work schemes which have seen prisoners rented out as fruit pickers), according to a Corrections spokesperson, they will be paid between 20 and 60 cents an hour. As with previous prison employment schemes, they will have no labour rights, no employment contract, no effective means of dispute resolution, and no enforceable workplace safety standards. And of course, no right to strike for higher wages.

As for Canon, the press release claims they are paying "market rates" - but given the flexibility of the market, that can mean almost anything, and given the risks of the scheme, I think its fair to say that they would not be doing it unless it was far cheaper than the alternatives. So, they're profiting from the use of slave labour in New Zealand prisons. If they were doing it overseas, it would be illegal; the Customs Act prohibits the importation of goods made with prison labour. But by doing it here, they sidestep the law. As for Corrections, they get to pocket the revenue while not being exposed to the same labour and employment standards that private companies have to pay and while having all of its overheads funded by the taxpayer. Whichever way you look at it, it's simply obscene. And the fact that Labour - "the party of the workers" - is doing it is even more obscene.

I support prison employment or training schemes, but they should be handled transparently, with prisoners working voluntarily, paid market rates (possibly escrowed until release) with full labour rights, and not subject to any sanctions for refusing to participate. Any deductions for room and board should be made transparently, just as they are in the work-to-release scheme. But the way Corrections handles these schemes now is the opposite of this, and allows them to effectively rent out their prisoners as low-wage forced labour. And that is simply not something that should be allowed to happen in a civilised society.

Update: some people have asked whether prisoners really aren't allowed to join unions or take industrial action. That's certainly my understanding from the explanation Corrections gave me when I first looked at this a few years ago:

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...
No rights, no contract, no protections, and a token "incentive payment" in the place of a wage - they're slaves. And our government is contracting them out for the private sector's profit. We should all be ashamed of ourselves for letting this go on.