- Under the provisions of the Penal Institutions Act (1954) prisoners in NZ are required to work as directed by the prison Superintendent. Such work is under prison supervision.
- Depending on location, employment in prison includes work in farming, forestry, horticulture, kitchens, laundry, cleaning, packing, sewing, building or ground maintenance, vehicle servicing, and manufacturing activities. On 15 October 1999, 70% of prisoners were recorded as being employed in prison. Nine prisoners were on work release. (Dept. of Corrections Forecast Report 1.7.99 – 30.6.2000; Offenders in Custody, 15 October 1999.)
- Refusal to work is an offence. Penalties can include solitary confinement, and loss of allowances, home leave, work release, and parole.
- In 1996 the Department of Corrections began developing a new Inmate Employment Policy with an expressed aim of maximizing private sector involvement in the prison system. By July 1998, over 20 private companies were involved in prison industry in 14 prisons. The level of payment to these companies was described as ‘commercially sensitive’ information. (Minister of Corrections, Nick Smith, Written reply to parliamentary question, July,1998.)
- By August 1998, and as part of this process, a new pay scale called the ‘Inmate Incentive Scheme’ had been introduced replacing the long-standing earnings regime. The average ‘incentive payment’ was $13 per week (Fact Sheet, public launch by Corrections of Inmate Employment Programme, November 1998.)
In April 1999 the NZ Trade Union Federation lodged a representation against the NZ Government, about its use of prison labour, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This representation argued that the Government was failing through the Inmate Employment Programme to effectively observe the ILO Convention 29 on Forced or Compulsory Labour of prisoners.
- The ILO Convention 29 exists to prevent exploitation of prison labour. It was ratified by NZ in 1938. Article 2(2)(c) prohibits forced or compulsory labour. Work within prisons is excluded from this definition provided that it is:
- Carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority (Article 2);
- Not for the benefit of private individuals, companies or associations (Article 4 & 5);
- Paid at rates prevailing in the case of voluntary labour including overtime (Article 13)
- Forced labour is defined as ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of penalty for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily’. (Article 2, paragraph 1. ILO Convention 29.)
- Nevertheless, the Department of Corrections through its Inmate Employment Programme now hires prisoners to private individuals, companies, and associations in contravention of Article 2(2)(c) above. The work or services of such prisoners does not occur under the full supervision and control of a public authority, but rather, under contract to private organisations. In addition, prisoners do not earn the wages (minimum
or otherwise) of voluntary labour as required under ILO Convention 29.
- The Department of Corrections explicitly rejected the ILO requirement to make prisoner employment in private enterprise comparable to a free employment relationship. (Briefing Paper to Minister from Department of Corrections, February 1998). Nor is commitment to training obvious.
- Corrections officials also noted in 1998, ‘It is difficult to determine conclusively that participation by inmates in prison industries with private sector involvement is voluntary in NZ…It is an offence for an inmate in a NZ prison to refuse to work’. (Depart. of Corrections Briefing Paper to Minister, 25 Feb.1998, ‘Inmate Employment Policy and Compliance with International Obligations’.
- In efforts to avoid ILO criticism Corrections moved to direct that only ‘volunteers’ would work in any prison industry with private sector involvement.
- Yet, where prisoners are compelled to undertake prison work, and where sufficient alternative in-house work may be unavailable or inaccessible, it is questionable whether ‘voluntary participation’ as per Convention 29 (entailing the ‘full consent’ of a prisoner facing private enterprise work) really obtains. Free choice becomes Hobson’s choice.
- Indeed, prisoners have expressed considerable resentment at being forced to do repetitive work at a machine with no skills enhancement for 6 or more hours a day, for a private employer, in return for a few dollars a week. NZ Trade Union Federation, Representation, April 1998, p.9.)
- President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, Ken Douglas, a member of the Department of Corrections Inmate Employment Steering Committee, reported to the CTU in August 1999. He noted that ‘the foundations of the scheme were driven from cost and fiscal considerations’ and that there was ‘little regard given to programme quality, training, and skills development’. In particular, he recommended that any compliance with the ILO Convention required detailed adjustments by the Department of Corrections in the areas of:
- The transparency of voluntarism of participation by inmates
- The assertion that inmates do not have employment rights perse with private companies involved
- Training, work experience and associated workplace issues are not regarded as essential features of the scheme
- Inmates do not receive wages
- Ken Douglas acknowledged that the scheme had significant potential in contributing to
overcoming problems associated with historical disadvantage and neglect, and in
providing opportunities to many who had never had access to structured training and
skills or paid employment. Nevertheless, he recommended, on the grounds above, that
the CTU advise the ILO that the Inmate Employment Programme as presently operated
in NZ was in breach of Convention 29. (Ken Douglas, Report to CTU on Department of Corrections Inmate
Employment Steering Committee, 2 August, 1999.)
The Howard League acknowledges NZ Trade Union Federation material used in this Fact Sheet.