Topic

Prison Labor

Prison Labor is “work that is performed by incarcerated and detained people”. —Freedom United

Prison Work Programs

It is not uncommon for prisons to have “work programs” where those incarcerated work and perform duties, like laundry or maintenance, within the institution. While not all prison labor is forced labor, there are inherent risks of modern slavery that come with the power imbalance and confinement inherent to prisons. In addition, prisoners often have little to no ability to directly voice concerns or grievances to the companies utilizing prison labor. Without the ability to call attention to abuses behind bars, prisoners are at higher risk of exploitation.

“A company engaging prison labour should ensure that, if a prisoner refuses the work offered, there is no menace of any penalty, such as loss of privileges or an unfavourable assessment of behaviour which could jeopardize any reduction in his or her sentence.” —International Labour Organization (ILO)

Not all prison labor programs are exploitative, but in order for them to be considered responsible or at-will, those being enrolled in them should do so voluntarily (i.e., give free consent). The ILO lists indicators that, if absent, could point to forced labor. Companies must verify and monitor that the ILO provisions are being met within a prison work program. 

Prison Labor and Seafood

Recently, attention has been drawn to seafood raised and processed by prison laborers. While most situations of prison labor are not illegal, UN guidelines regarding the use of prison labor are not always followed, which may cause abusive or exploitative situations. Media stories about Whole Foods, Colorado Correctional Industries, and Seattle Fish Co.  illustrate the complicated nature of utilizing prison labor in seafood. 

In Thailand in 2015, the Thai government planned to recruit prisoners to fill the labor shortage on fishing vessels. The Thai government rescinded that plan after the International Labor Rights Forum, and other civil society organizations (including FishWise) condemned the project, citing the high risk of exploitation of prison laborers. However, as recently as February 2021, the Department of Corrections and the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand have proposed to invest in vocational training for inmates, including for seafood processing.

Industry Actions Regarding Prison Labor

Map Supply Chains Sourcing goods from prison work programs creates reputational risk for a company, as prison labor is a controversial topic and is not often supported by consumers. Prison labor also poses legal risk for business. Federal trade bans are enacted against countries known to use forced labor. Trade holds, such as Withhold Release Orders (WRO), may also be issued against specific companies or regions known to use forced labor and exploitative practices in prisons. Businesses should adequately map their supply chains and prioritize transparency in order to assure consumers, governments, and other stakeholders that their products are free from exploitation. Follow ILO Guidance Due to the uncertainty surrounding informed/free consent and voluntary prison work, it is difficult to guarantee that businesses that engage with prison labor have supply chains free of exploitation. Meeting all the safeguards outlined by the ILO requires thorough investigation, financial resources, and capacity. For more guidance, see the ILO recommendations to businesses that choose to utilize prison labor within their supply chains.

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