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August 16, 2015 | by  | in News Splash |
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Airing Victoria’s laundry

Is the Uni exploiting prison labour?

Victoria University has been contracting its laundry services to Arohata Prison, a women’s prison in Tawa, whose inmates are paid between 20 and 60 cents per hour for their work.

Prisoners who work in the laundry clean linen, bath mats, pillowcases, sheets and towels for Victoria University’s Campus Services, Human Resources and Weir House.

Women who work at Arohata can be employed in the kitchen, laundry, textiles, asset maintenance and ground maintenance sectors. Their pay is typical of working prisoners in New Zealand.

The Department of Corrections has held the contract for the past 11 years. The University does not pay the prisoners directly, but pays a fee per item to Corrections, which then distributes pay to the prisoners.

A spokesperson for Victoria University told Salient that Arohata Prison, as opposed to a regular laundry service, is used because the Department of Corrections “provides a very good service”.

Prisoners in New Zealand are encouraged to spend 40 hours each week in rehabilitation, education and training, and work as part of the Government’s working prison strategy. The Government intends for all New Zealand prisons to be working prisons by 2017 as part of their goal to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent.

While at Arohata Prison, those who are able to work can gain qualifications including National Certificates in Cookery, Laundry Washroom Procedures, Painting and Decorating, Horticulture and Textiles Manufacture. In the year ending 30 June 2014, 3,801 prisoners across New Zealand achieved 3,858 qualifications.

Helen Kelly, head of Council of Trade Unions (CTU), told Salient that the work programme at Arohata would not realistically lead to employment for inmates, and the women are not paid fairly.

Kelly said the CTU supports working prisons, but only when the conditions are right. For the CTU this means that the work is not undermining the market, that those doing the work are paid properly, and that the work includes “an element of real training that will lead to real work”.

“They should at least earn minimum wage and that can be put into a bank account and be used to pay for study or for training. Everyone that’s contributing through their labour should be paid the minimum wage,” Kelly said.

“Victoria University shouldn’t be exploiting the labour of these women in that way. There’s not going to be work in laundry for when these women [are released], and it will be undermining other laundry service workers.”

CTU would like those using prison services to pay market rates for the work.

“We think there should be a market price paid for it by the person who is benefitting from the labour… and we think that would stop them doing it simply because it’s cheap.”

The University refused to confirm the value of its contract with Corrections or whether it paid market rates for the services, claiming that the information was “commercially sensitive”.

John Pratt, Head of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria, supports the University’s use of the prison laundry service.

Pratt said it was “patronising” to suggest that the work would not teach inmates marketable skills.

He said the work would impart productive habits and increase prisoners’ employment opportunities in dry cleaning organisations or laundries upon their release.

“They are likely to have such poor work records and such limited educational backgrounds that their opportunities for employment are very, very small at best in most cases. If this does something to improve those chances then it’s a valuable skill.”

However, Pratt is concerned that prisoners are paid “absolutely minimal” wages for their work in New Zealand and would like all prisoners to be paid the going rate for their labour.

“Prisoners have always been paid remarkably little in this country as it’s thought they shouldn’t make a profit from their crime,” he said. “They have to be disadvantaged and inconvenienced or made to suffer in some demonstrable way.”

Pratt believes this is a key problem within the New Zealand prison system, and compared our system to that of the Scandinavian countries where prisoners often earn the going rate for their labour, with necessary deductions being made for their board, food, fines and child support.

If a similar system could be implemented in New Zealand, Pratt says prisoners would be “able to take some sort of responsibility for the development of their lives”.

“If you’re only being paid 20 or 60 cents an hour then you’re going to feel pretty worthless, you’re going to feel ripped off, and you are still not able to assume any great responsibility over the course of your life, because ultimately the state is there.”

Dr Stephen Burnell, a senior economics lecturer at Victoria, says that if the University paid lower prices for the prison services then other laundry businesses would suffer.

“If prison industries charge lower prices, that would impair the working of the free market. The prison would be contracted rather than other firms, so it would stifle employment opportunities in Wellington.

“Competing laundries will not like the prison laundry, as it undercuts their commercial activities.”

However, Burnell did not take issue with prisoners receiving low wages as they “have a debt to society”.

John Weeds, operator of commercial laundry service Executive Laundry, is concerned about the competition from Corrections for his business.

“We do not support any government funded organisation competing with the private sector. The private sector has to pay real costs for capital and operating costs, whereas government funded organisations do not. Therefore there is not a level playing field,” Weeds said.

“It is not just business opportunities that are impacted on. By competing with unreal costs they impact on the entire market. It could have the direct effect of taking real jobs within the community.”

Although Weeds thinks it is valuable for prisoners to gain work experience, he is concerned that their work should “be conducted with the industries and not against them”.

His business has employed prisoners as part of the government’s Release to Work scheme, and has hired some of these people upon their release from prison.

In the Release to Work scheme, prisoners nearing the end of their sentences are able to spend time working in the private sector to increase their likelihood of employment upon their release.

While employed under this scheme, prisoners are paid market wages for their work and then deductions are made for child support, board, fines and work-related expenses such as travel and equipment.

Kim Workman, founder of lobby group Rethinking Crime and Punishment, told Salient that in his experience, “there are very few able prisoners who would not grab at the opportunity to work, or engage in constructive activity. Those that are part of the small group getting qualifications while in prison will grab that with both hands.”

He feels that the most pressing problem comes when prisoners want to find a job on leaving prison, as “employers will not touch [people] with a prison background”.

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