Because of its role as a major source of contracts, the federal government has the ability to play an important positive role in raising labor standards and practices throughout the economy.
More recently, 17 progressive Democrats called on the president to take action to ensure that workers employed under federal contracts receive a living wage. This followed a study from Demos that showed that the federal government, through its contracts, is the biggest creator of jobs paying less than $24,000 per year.
In light of this history (and hopeful future), I found this incredibly disheartening:
Federal officials still have to navigate a tangle of rules. Defense officials, for instance, who spend roughly $2 billion annually on military uniforms, are required by a World War II-era rule called the Berry Amendment to have most of them made in the United States. In recent years, Congress has pressured defense officials to cut costs on uniforms. Increasingly, the department has turned to federal prisons, where wages are under $2 per hour. Federal inmates this year stitched more than $100 million worth of military uniforms.(Emphasis added)
Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.The use of underpaid prison labor is a moral abomination in multiple ways.
These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.
Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance -- unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide. Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” was then the essence of the American penal system. More than that, it was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy -- at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.
For one, we have a minimum wage, a moral and legal affirmation of a threshold under which pay for workers cannot fall. This violates that moral affirmation from society. Those in prison will eventually leave and will have to be reintegrated into their communities. The formerly incarcerated already face numerous difficulties in finding gainful employment and achieving economic security and stability upon release. Denying them money for the work that they have done (coerced work no less!), leaving them on an even shakier footing upon release, exacerbates such injustice. Incarceration, even though by nature it must curtail freedom, should not entail an end to economic rights.
The use of underpaid prison labor also has a pernicious effect on the workers currently employed or seeking work in the economy at large as well. An ample supply of cheap labor combined with weak enforcement of rights must be very tempting to government agencies and private companies looking to work within tight budgets or boost their bottom lines. As Paul Krugman demonstrated in his op-ed earlier today, high unemployment tilts the balance of power in the workplace more to the favor of the employer. A ready supply of cheap coerced labor does so as well.
The government should be using its contracts to build a fairer society--to promote "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"--not to compound existing injustices.