Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Keeping Workers in Cages - the rise of the Prison-Industrial Complex

Crime is on the decline, yet the prevalence of prisons is on the rise. How to explain this? If there’s less crime why is it that prisons are busting at the seams? Why are more and more people being sent to prison? The answer may be as chilling as the situation is perplexing.
Of course, the unfortunate reality today is that the exploitation of working men and women has become commonplace in North America. Every which way you turn unions are forced to justify their very existence and non-unionized workers are vigorously dissuaded from organizing.  But there’s another group of workers outside of the usual employment system who are often forgotten and at least just as often on the wrong end of anti-worker policies: prisoners.
In the U.S. private prisons have been growing rapidly. According to the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), just a decade ago there were 5 private prisons in the U.S. Today there are roughly 100 private prisons, an increase of 20 times the amount of private prisons in half as many years[1].
This is a worrying trend for several reasons. Private prisons open the door to a temptation corporate interests are seldom, if ever, able to resist: cheap labour. Roughly 75% of States allow private corporations to contract prison labour and many high-profile corporations do just that. Such corporations include names as well-known as AT &T, Pierre Cardin, Target, Boeing and many more.

The prisoners/labourers in the private prisons may receive as little as 17 cents per hour. The highest paid labourers from this unenviable group earn only 50 cents per hour. The remuneration is so low that an Oregon State Representative has even urged Nike to pull out of Indonesia and bring its production back to the States, because in Oregon “we’re offering competitive prison labor”[2]. It’s plain to see there are two vested interests here: the corporations who exploit cheap prison labour and the government which profits from contracts for that labour. Put together, these two interests form a grotesque weight that crushes the human rights of prisoners and eschews basic labour protections.
It gets worse. British Petroleum (BP), the corporation directly involved in the infamous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is reported to have used prison labourers for the cleanup efforts. The prisoners had to work up to 12 hours per day in potentially toxic conditions. Chemicals in crude oil have the capacity to harm the entire body, right down to cell structures and DNA[3]. But BP didn’t need to worry about the working conditions – the corporation was reportedly able to force the prisoners to sign documents that prevented them from speaking openly about the deplorable conditions. Bad news for prisoners, but not for BP.
And the news for BP gets even better. After bearing responsibility for one of the worst ecological disasters in U.S. history, the Welfare-to-Work legislation in America allowed BP to take advantage of a $2,400 tax credit for every prisoner “hired” to participate in the cleanup. Quite a reward for exploiting prisoners[4].
Effect on Jobs
When a corporation contracts prisoners to fulfill its labour requirements, the corporation does not need to deal with its “employees” taking vacation time or striking for improved wages. This hurts not only the prisoners who are being exploited, but workers outside of the prison walls as well. And it’s happening no matter which side of the ocean you’re on. For example, drawn by the enticements of cheap labour, a company in the UK recently started to bus in prisoners to work. The prisoners are paid a mere 3 pounds per day (or 6% of the minimum wage). Embracing this new cheap labour, the company had no more use for some its regular employees. In the same way workers in Canada can’t compete with the low wages that workers in the developing world earn when companies offshore production, so the UK employees couldn’t compete with the pittance paid to prisoners. The workers were fired.[5]   This is but one example amid a multitude of stories involving workers deemed redundant by companies once the much cheaper labour of prisoners was introduced.
Canada is unfortunately tracking a similar course. Canada’s crime rates in 2011 were the lowest they’d been since 1972[6].  Yet even as the crime rate drops, the prison population grows[7]. The so-called “tough on crime” policies and mandatory minimum sentences that have been enacted in Canada have considerably expanded the prison population and changed the nature of the penal system. Housing the glut of prisoners in Canada’s penitentiaries is expensive, but can also be a boon for businesses.
Corrections Canada has advanced a strategy for containing the costs of housing its expanding prison population. A proposition has been put forward that would eliminate “incentive pay” for prisoners in the CORCAN program. CORCAN is a Corrections Canada program that employs prisoners in manufacturing and other trades[8]. The program states that its aim is to rehabilitate prisoners by providing work experience and training to offenders. Contracts for such prison labour are awarded to CORCAN’s corporate partners with increasing regularity. And it’s not likely hard to find interested corporations. Businesses want cheap labour and will naturally jump at the chance to get it, and the CORCAN program meets those ends. CORCAN’s Annual Report has even quoted a corporate partner who describes the CORCAN program as “an excellent return on investment”[9]. That’s probably an understatement.
The obvious question becomes, is the work these prisoners are doing for corporations truly part of their rehabilitation or is it exploitation under the guise of rehabilitation? Given that corporate interests clearly view the situation through an economic lens and government is continually increasing the number of prisoners and length of their sentences, it’s difficult to see how this could be a program strictly serving the rehabilitative function. Profit rules, prisoners and labour rights be damned.
Tired of this obvious exploitation, inmates in BC attempted to organize and fight for their labour rights. Prisoner-organizers tried to form a labour union – the Canadian Prisoners’ Labour Union, Local 001.  Over 76% of prisoners supported the idea[10]. The organizers claimed they were expected to work without proper safety equipment and that grievances weren’t being properly addressed. The inmates believed a union could help them not only achieve better safety conditions and grievance procedures, but also aid in their ultimate rehabilitation[11]. 

However, prisoners felt their attempts to organize were being thwarted by the prison administration. When the prisoners applied to the Canada Public Service Labour Relations Board in a bid to resolve their concerns, the Board declined to hear their matter. The Board ruled it did not have jurisdiction to hear the inmates’ complaint, as the inmates were not properly employees of Correctional Services.
International Standards
The Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) is an international instrument designed to protect workers against the indignity of forced labour. The Convention flowed from the Slavery Convention adopted by the League of Nations in 1926. The Forced Labour Convention sought to at once adopt and elaborate upon the labour-related parts of the Slavery Convention.
While the Forced Labour Convention aims to protect people from forced labour it does not specifically prohibit prison labour. Article 2(2) of the Convention reads:
Any work or service exacted from any person as a consequence of a conviction in a court of law, provided that the said work or service is carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority and that the said person is not hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations[12].
The Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) further defined the rules regarding forced labour. Out of these two Conventions a number of principles emerged, one of which is that a prisoner may perform labour for a private company so long as the prisoner does so with his own agreement and by his own consent.
A supervisory Committee of Experts with the ILO conducted a General Survey in 1979 to probe into issues raised by the interaction between the Conventions on forced labour and the more modern practice of private corporate involvement in prison labour. The Committee found that:
The Convention does not of course prevent work from being made available to such prisoners at their own request, to be performed on a purely voluntary basis.
But is a prisoner ever really in a position to truly consent, to enter into a working relationship freely and with full voluntariness? This was a concern for the Committee. Without going into a detailed analysis of the Committee’s Survey, it is enough to say that the Committee concluded that where there is no employment contract and where the workers operate outside the scope of labour law, it may be impossible for a worker to freely and voluntarily enter into an employment relationship. In 2000, the Committee reaffirmed its earlier position regarding voluntariness, finding that for a labour relationship with prisoners to be considered voluntary it need not meet the same standards of labour for workers outside of the prison system, but, as Lee Swepston, in a paper for the International Relations Research Association, puts it:
…wages, social security, safety and labour inspection, the circumstances in which the prison labour is performed should not be so disproportionately lower than the free market that it could be considered exploitative.[13]
Consider the “high-paid” U.S. prison workers earning 50 cents an hour, or the UK prison workers earning 6% of the minimum wage or the BC inmates who tried to organize, in part, out of concern for subpar safety conditions. Are these truly voluntary workers? I would venture a guess that the Committee would say unequivocally, no.
But this is not to say that Canada is once more failing to live up to its international labour commitments. Canada and the U.S. are two of only a handful of countries that have refused to ratify the forced labour Conventions. What Canada is doing is falling far below standards of labour accepted by the international community and advocating the use of a workforce outside of the scope and protections of the law. It visits shame upon our country and is an affront to the common decency that we, as a society, so highly value.

[12] Art. 2, para 2.

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