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March 20, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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Airing Victoria’s Laundry… again

Two Victoria University of Wellington halls of residence, Joan Stevens House and Weir House, have been found to still be using the laundry services at Arohata Prison in Tawa during trimester three of 2016–2017.

Salient became aware of this after a request was made under the Official Information Act in December 2016, and confirmed in a further request in February 2017.

Victoria University claimed to have ceased using the services in May 2016 after it was exposed, in a 2015 story by former-Salient co-editor Emma Hurley, as having been using Arohata Prison’s laundry services to clean bedding and bathroom items like towels and bathmats for Victoria University Campus Services, Human Resources, and Weir House.

The laundry services at Arohata Prison are currently only used during trimester three, as both Weir House and Joan Stevens House provide fully made beds to groups during the summer. The laundry services at Arohata Prison are used to clean after each group stays in the hall.

These laundry services are not required during trimester one and two for Weir House and Joan Stevens House, as students are expected to provide their own bedding and bathroom linen, and use the internal communal laundries.

Victoria University acknowledged that an “informal historic agreement that was never recorded in writing” has existed between the university and the Department of Corrections — who contract the services out to Arohata Prison — since the late 1990s to use labour from the prison for laundry services.  

Victoria University confirmed that “[t]he services are also a minor administrative transaction whereby the cost of the services does not require a formal contract to be entered into, under the University’s Procurement Policy.”

In September 2016, Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford was questioned about the use of prison labour for laundry services in a student forum, to which he responded that he could not comment on the situation.

When asked by Salient in February 2017 if he could now comment on the issue, he said, “no, not really.”

“I think in general, the same principles of fairness should apply to prison labour as any other labour. I would not like to think that we’re associated with some sort of financial rort whereby people are paid less than they deserve […] I was assured that this wasn’t the case, but I haven’t dug into it personally to see if it is.”

When Salient said that the information about prison labour had been received from Victoria University in response to an Official Information Act request, the Vice-Chancellor said “I’ll have a look at that, then.”

VUWSA President Rory Lenihan-Ikin declined to answer Salient’s specific questions about the university’s use of prison labour in trimester three. VUWSA’s communications advisor responded: “We have spoken to the university about this and have been assured that while previously they had been using prison labour for laundry services, no current services anywhere in the university use prison labour.”

It is understood that the university is not using prison labour for laundry services in trimester one. Lenihan-Ikin was made aware by Salient of the specific time period in which labour at Arohata Prison was used.

According to the Department of Corrections, there are 16 women who work in the laundry service at Arohata Prison, which “provides commercial laundry services to the prison and contract work for external clients as required.”

The Department of Corrections work programmes in prisons are described as “an important stepping stone in the rehabilitation of a prisoner and… gives prisoners real work experience, employment skills and job stability, making it easier for them to find work on release — which makes it less likely they’ll re-offend.”

The women who work in the laundry services earn a National Certificate in Laundry Washroom Procedures Level One as part of the many re-education and work programmes operating at the prison.

In response to a request placed by Jeremy Roundill under the Official Information Act in late 2016, the Department of Corrections National Commissioner, Jeremy Lightfoot, stated that 5553 prisoners were engaged in “some form of employment managed by the Department inside and outside the prison grounds.”

Prisoners who are engaged in this form of employment are eligible for an allowance ranging from $0.00 to $1.00 an hour for their work. Over a three month period the average amount of hours worked by a prisoner was 84.57.

Lightfoot also stated that “most prisoners in the working prison environment will be paid the incentive rate of between 20 and 60 cents per hour.”

Lenihan-Ikin responded to the issue of pay equity, stating that “VUWSA supports the living wage for all workers, which includes university workers and contractors. It’s important that people are paid fairly for the work they’re doing. We would like to see Victoria University become leaders in this respect.”

Salient spoke to a representative from prison abolitionist group No Pride in Prisons, who believe that “incarcerated people are some of the most highly exploited workers in the world,” as they are “not guaranteed the same basic rights as workers on the outside, including… a minimum wage.”

They said that Victoria University should be “absolutely condemned for using prison labour. The fact that it has continued […] for over a decade, even after being criticised, shows us just how much capitalist institutions exploit” cheap labour like that in prison “to the fullest.”

They also saw the verbal nature of the contract between Victoria University and the Department of Corrections as “extremely unethical,” and as a way for Victoria University “to obscure just how exploitative their employment practices are, and makes it much more difficult for them to be held accountable.”

The representative from No Pride in Prisons encouraged Victoria University to “examine why they have continued to use […] exploitative employment practises for their laundry services,” and “cease using prison labour and look for alternatives.”

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