Companies across the United States are increasingly turning to prison labor programs as a source of cheap labor to address perceived labor shortages. Yet worker advocates point to exploitation inherent in prison labor programs — not only do they pay far lower, these same companies rarely hire people after they have been released from prison because they have criminal records.
At a recent sanitation, waste, and recycling industry meeting, executives tabled the idea of using prison labor and work release programs to fill a ‘labor shortage.’ Workers in the industry hit back.
“There is no driver shortage. There is a huge wage and benefits shortage that these waste companies refuse to give up anything on the bottom line, ” said Chuck Stiles, director of the Teamsters solid waste and recycling division, which represents over 32,000 workers in the industry.
The Guardian reports:
Employers and industry groups have claimed labor shortages were stifling recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with the US Chamber of Commerce and Republican governors blaming unemployment benefits. Some 26 states have canceled federal extended unemployment benefits early, though economists have noted the available jobs recovery data shows there is no economy-wide labor shortage.
That hasn’t stopped employers and business groups from using perceived labor shortages as a pretext to seek out cheap labor sources; employers are hiring teenagers to fill open jobs, automating some job roles to avoid raising wages, lobbying Congress to double the cap on work immigration visas and expanding the use of prison labor.
In April, Russell Stover candy production facilities in Iola and Abilene, Kansas, began using prison labor through the Topeka correctional facility in response to staffing issues disrupting production lines.
About 150 prisoners work at the plant, making $14 an hour with no benefits or paid time off, while other workers start at higher wages with benefits and paid time off. Kansas also deducts 25% of prisoners’ pay for room and board, and another 5% goes toward a victim’s fund. The prisoners also must pay for gas for the nearly two-hour bus ride to and from the plant.
Brandilynn Parks, president of the Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform, explains that these programs are often a means for companies to take advantage of cheap labor, drive down wages, and take away jobs from other workers in the community.
“Whenever we have private industries coming into the Kansas department of corrections, they sign a contract guaranteeing a certain number of people will be working there,” said Parks.
“The contract guaranteeing this amount of people makes it difficult to release people because they’re making the department of corrections money. So the Department of Corrections and private industry wins and they try to make it appear as though the incarcerated win, when really they’re being taken advantage of.”
New York City’s construction industry is also known for recruiting people released from prison, who are required to seek and maintain employment as part of their release. Thousands have been hired at job sites called “body shops,” where they earn low wages and have no benefits or health insurance.
“Throughout the pandemic, body shop laborers left their homes and took trains and buses to crowded job sites, building the NYC skyline. They did this without health insurance, without an economic safety net and with the constant threat of re-imprisonment if they refused to continue to work,’’ said Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice-president and director of organizing for Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79.
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