The Return of Commercial Prison Labour

The Return of Commercial Prison Labour

Christoph Scherrer and Anil Shah

Prisons are seldom mentioned under the rubric of labour market institutions such as temporary work contracts or collective bargaining agreements. Yet, prisons not only employ labour but also cast a shadow on the labour force in or out of work. The early labour movement considered the then prevalent use of prison labour for commercial purposes as unfair competition. By the 1930s, the U.S. labour movement was strong enough to have work for commercial purposes prohibited in prisons.

In the decades following, the number of prisoners decreased to a historic minimum. But with cutbacks in the welfare state, the prison population exploded from about 200,000 in 1975 to 2,300,000 in 2013 (Scherrer and Shah, 2017: 37) and prison labour for commercial purposes became legal again. Today, about 15% of the inmates in federal and state prisons... perform work for companies such as Boeing, Starbucks and Victoria's Secret. Migrants detained for violating immigration laws are one of the fastest growing segments of prison labour. Under the Trump administration, their numbers are most likely to increase.

Using the example of the U.S., we will discuss drivers of the return of commercial prison labour.

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