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In 2015, it was revealed that Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) had been using female prison labour from Arohata Prison for its laundry services. Using a verbal contract, the university has been able to have its towels and sheets cleaned by people who do not have the option to be legally recognised as employees. Almost a year later, it claimed to have ceased this practice.
As revealed by last month’s OIA request, the university lied to the public. VUW is still using Arohata prison labour as of this last summer, paying its workers below a single dollar per hour.
The details of prison labour in New Zealand have always been tightly under wraps. Even when the National Government introduced its Working Prisons programme last decade, the specifics of its actual practices were not made public.
What is known now is that in order to participate, prisoners have to “volunteer” to work, which means that they are effectively denied their right to be legally recognised as employees. This allows the university to use a verbal contract, which is unambiguously illegal for legally recognised employees, and makes it much more difficult for it to be held accountable to legal employment standards. Incarcerated workers are therefore not guaranteed sick leave, bathroom breaks, the right to unionise, or a minimum wage.
Furthermore, while many prisoners are keen to work, those that are not are coerced into doing so by threat of additional punishment. This deeply exploitative work is often reframed as “training,” or incentivised by promises of time off sentences instead of any wage at all. By pretending that they are helping prisoners improve as people, institutions using prison labour such as VUW are increasingly able to take advantage of a vulnerable group of people.
The result is an immensely cheap workforce that is powerless to bargain for its own rights, which is consistent with VUW’s other exploitative employment practices. Even legally recognised employees like the library and cleaning staffs continue to be paid well below the living wage. Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford made $520,000, or $266 per hour, in 2016. The corporate greed at work here is palpable.
With this material inequality in mind, the university needs to examine why it has continued to use the single most exploitative employment practice legally available for its laundry services. It must then immediately cease using prison labour and look for alternatives. Furthermore, the entirety of the labour that prisoners have done for the university must be fully and fairly compensated.
No Pride in Prisons will continue to lay pressure upon this university and any organisation we find using severely underpaid prison labour, and render it unfeasible for them to continue to do so if fair wages continue to be withheld. We will campaign to have full employment rights granted to those on the inside, which we believe will strengthen the collective power of workers everywhere.
If you share No Pride in Prisons’ concerns about VUW’s continued use of prison labour, or share our commitment to prison abolition, our Wellington branch meets regularly and we invite you to come along and get involved. Formal membership is available to anybody who is committed to our kaupapa via our website, noprideinprisons.org.nz.