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Is Free But Heavily Exploited Labor Cheap Enough for the Global Apparel Industry?

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Inmates from a La Fourche parish jail on a work release program fill giant sandbags in Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 11, 2010. U.S. Army National Guard troops were dropping the sandbags using helicopters on nearby breaks in beaches to protect marshes from the BP oil spill offshore. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)

Ha ha ha, of course not. Those workers could strike and stuff. Nope, prison labor is way better!

Now, look, I know that the prison system is terrible for prisoners around the world. Some of these brands using prison labor in Peru, Thailand, and the United States–not to mention other nations–are at least claiming to be ethically orienting, building skills for prisoners when they are released. But this is inherently problematic. First, the fundamental issue for manufacturers is cost. They are choosing prisoners because they are cheaper than free labor. That means they are also undermining free labor and their ability to make higher wages. By doing that, they then contribute to the poverty that leads to be ending up in prison in the first place.

Second, how often are these prisoners really building skills to be used outside the prison? Apparel production is pretty low on the skilled labor spectrum. It’s one of the reasons that factories pop up wherever they can; it doesn’t take a lot to train these workers in apparel production. Is this a skill that requires prison to produce? Is this a skill that is then transferable outside of prison? In many cases, it is not. There was a goat cheese maker in Colorado that was using prison labor and claiming they were building skills in prisoners, but of course how many ex-cons can afford to buy land and goats to make cheese? Pretty much none of them.

I am certainly not minimizing how awful prisons are around the world. But a labor market based around prisons is inherently exploitative in a completely unacceptable way. It’s also illegal to ship prison-made goods to the United States, which has led some of these companies to stop until they can see if they can get waiver. Hopefully they cannot. It simply opens up too many problems, even if in one or another factory, the prisoners are actually treated well.

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