Blogs & Comment

Profiting from prison labour

The use of prison labour doesn't constitute unfair business practice, but it should still give us pause.

(Photo: Darrin Klimek/Getty)

Is it right for a company to use convicts for cheap labour? Is it unfair to pay prisoners less than the minimum wage? Is it wrong to use such labour in a way that displaces “ordinary” employees?

The Guardian recently ran a story about prisoners doing work for a private telemarketing company in a way that may (or may not, depending who you ask) be taking jobs away from law-abiding folks. The prisoners in question are being paid the equivalent of about 60 cents an hour— just a small fraction of the legal minimum wage..

Prison labour is a great topic, ethically, in part because it tends to make people of just about all political stripes uncomfortable, albeit for different reasons. Some worry about the prisoners, who may have little option but to accept whatever crummy labour comes their way. Others may have the opposite worry: why coddle criminals by giving them the benefit of a job or job training? They’re in prison to be punished, not to learn skills. Still others worry not about the prisoners at all, but about the non-prison workers who are displaced by prisoners who inevitably “underbid” them for jobs. You could add to that list the businesses who don’t use prison labour, and who are therefore at a competitive disadvantage. How can you compete when your competitor’s labour costs are half what yours are?

We’ll leave for others the basic question of whether, or under what conditions, penal labour is itself justified, and instead focus on the business ethics issues. And as far as I can see, from that point of view there just isn’t a problem.

The “law-abiding” workers put out of a job have every right to complain, but that’s not to say that they have a justified complaint; they haven’t been wronged in any way. Other things being equal, no one has a right to any particular job. The worker who finds herself out of a job because she’s been underbid by cheap prison labour is no more treated unjustly than the worker underbid by cheap labour overseas. (For that matter, the prisoner arguably needs the job more than the average U.K. worker does, as does the worker overseas.) If I needed a plumber and found one who charged $100/hr and another who charged $50 an hour, the more expensive one would have no cause for complaint if I opted for the cheaper. It is reasonable, and not unfair, for me to try to keep my costs down.

Nor can a competing company rightly complain. A company reaps no unfair advantage by using prison labour. Sure, it reaps an advantage, but not through anything underhanded. As long as prison labour isn’t acquired by fraud or by, say, bribing or pressuring officials in the justice system into making decisions that violate their sworn duties, then prison labour is just another form of cheap labour. From an economic point of view, they’re to be congratulated for innovation. As long as other companies have the option of obtaining (or competing for) access to the same cheap labour pool, there’s no injustice here.

There’s an important lesson here about what counts as an “ethical issue.” The use of prison labour is, to be sure, an ethical issue. There are important rights at stake, and the decision to use such labour has important consequences. Such being the case, the decision and the details are not to be taken lightly. But that’s not to say that the practice itself is unethical. It is not, in and of itself, unjustified. But it is still good and socially healthy that the practice gives so many of us cause to pause and reflect.