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Convict Labour is not an Economic Solution

A recent push by cash strapped Tasmanian councils and farmers to be able to use convict labour is in our newspapers. In the spin it sounds fine. Yes, give the poor sods a go at doing an honest day’s work. But as an ex-convict from the Tasmanian prison system I’ll explain why it’s a bad idea.

My first objection goes to the motivation of cashed strapped councils and farmers. I gather we’re not talking about crossing the prisoners’ palms with silver for a hard day’s work? No. Dare somebody suggest a criminal be paid for the privilege to perform economic activity. We’re talking about, at best, the prison contracting out minimum security labour for income to the State Government coffers. At worst, an indentured servant base to work for free (or almost free) without workers rights or status. Slave labour.

That’s a big term: Slave Labour. It’s powerful. Think about that for a minute. A prisoner can choose not to do this work, but will sit and rot in maximum security as a direct result if that work is declined. Prison systems are geared towards prisoners moving from maximum through to minimum security ratings. And prisoners have no choice in reality. They have to aspire to this work if it’s available. Free work. For councils and farmers. Noting also that farms are private companies and farmers are managers, CEOs and Directors.

From an ethical perspective, prisoners should not be treated as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves (Immanuel Kant, pronounced cunt). So, ethically, it’s my argument that the motivation of using these men as cheap labour for economic benefit to others is abhorrent at the core. Even if you don’t share the word slavery with me; you should at least see the connection between this proposal and using someone for one’s benefit, not theirs. It’s not a win-win at all.

If the prisoner does do this indentured work they will be paid a pittance, as per regulation payment within the prison system. And if the prisoner tries to run away they will be hunted down at gunpoint and have their time in Her Majesty’s armpit extended along with the torture of a long lonely stretch in solitary confinement. Masturbatorial purgatory.

Let me put some ideas to you. The only meaningful work is paid work. That is work that treats the person as a respected unit of wealth creation with an appropriate reward. The only meaningful work puts cash in the worker’s pockets to feed struggling families, pay bills and provide security for the future. This is no different for prisoners. They have wives, partners and children and often owe money to the courts and victims on release.

Poverty is a large factor in the cycle of recidivism and any solution for prisoners must include their needs at the time of release – money, housing, a job. If they create economic wealth in society we need to cross their palms with silver.

The counter argument would tell you that these prisoners gain certification in illustrious skills such as chainsaw and brush cutter use. And, yes, prisoners at the old (now closed) Hayes Prison Farm used to get forklift and heavy rigid licenses on occasion. But a certificate isn’t a job at the end of their sentence. A chainsaw certificate is a joke. Any program to use prisoners for cheap labour needs to address real post-release employment needs… otherwise we’re just humouring ourselves at their expense. It’s pure economic exploitation.

Now think a little about the consequences in the community of utilising this labour force. Councils can tell contractors that they’re no longer needed to mow the parks or paint the fences. We have some convict freebies in the labour market. Real jobs gone. And the moment that some young guy runs away to spend the night with his girlfriend we’ll howl the house down and demand tougher sentencing and more guns to control the rabble. We’re a fickle audience to the ongoing penal melodrama.

I’m also concerned because the Tasmanian Government has a policy not to employ people with a criminal record. And the Federal Government will accept your resume, but only to avoid discrimination claims. There are 50,000 Australians (1/3 of those mentally ill) released from Australian prisons annually. There are 30,000 prisoners interred in our prisons and that number is growing. Real work for prisoners is a great idea, but giving ex-prisoners a job in the real World is not on anybody’s agenda. I find that repugnant.

As for the poverty of Tasmanian councils, a news article in 2012-2013 stated the Hobart City Council had $30 million in a bank account gaining regular interest. Don’t pull my chain on the “councils are poor” line. Rates are astronomical. Councils are now profit maximisation businesses with the same objectives as the private sector – to make MORE money EVERY quarter.

And I have no doubt at all that farmers would love to see apple orchards full of free labour with no commitment to paying superannuation or being held to industry standards. Companies in any sector would salivate at the opportunity.

Yes, on the face of it we can spin modern slavery into a nice little parcel to make everybody feel happy. They’re prisoners… we’re doing them a favour… they’ll be better for the experience. Bollocks.

In the 1990s Bob Clifford of INCAT had a life prisoner working as an aluminium welder. I won’t mention his name for privacy reasons. Bob didn’t have to pay this worker a cent, said the Prison. However, rather than exploit the man, Bob Clifford put away the working wage and handed it over at the end of the man’s prison sentence. I find that perfectly fine. Cross the man’s palm with silver for economic benefit returned to the business. That is how Capitalism works.

What Tasmanian councils and farmers are asking for is access to a free ride. At the cost of the prisoner. Under-cutting the value of labour. The only real job is a paying job and that requires a level of commitment that I am afraid most Tasmanians aren’t generous enough to extend.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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