On October 6, BHP Billiton and the South Australian Department for Correctional Services announced a new agreement allowing the company to employ prisoners from Port Augusta at Olympic Dam — the world's biggest uranium mine.
The move raises big questions about the rights of prisoners and the broader rights of workers in Australia. It also raises questions about the character of Australian prisons. Prison privatisation has been flagged in several states.
Under the agreement, a small group of prisoners who are close to completing their terms would be offered work in the BHP refurbishment projects at its Olympic Dam mine site.
Aimed primarily at Aboriginal prisoners, the program is an extension of the work camp scheme the prison has run since 1996. As part of the project, the state government said the prisoners would be provided with nationally recognised job training.
The prisoners could potentially be offered further employment with BHP Billiton after their release.
Similar "work release" programs already exist in many states, but the agreement with BHP Billiton is the first between a government and a large private company.
In response to the announcement, Australian Workers Union (AWU) national secretary Paul Howes said on October 7: "Any work experience and training opportunities available at Olympic Dam should give first preference to young Australians desperate for a job — and not in prison.
"Prison work programs are too often used as a technique by big multinationals to undermine the rights of working people to good well-paid jobs."
Howes is correct to say prison work programs can be used to undermine working conditions. In the US and other countries, the use of prison labour has been used to drive down labour costs and put downward pressure on the wages and conditions of other workers.
A big push to privatise prison labour would have significant impacts. Brett Collins, spokesperson for the prisoners' rights group Justice Action, told the Revitalisinglabour blog that each prisoner costs about $75,000 a year. The cost for juvenile detention is three times higher.
Using prisoners as a labour force would allow governments to offset this cost. It would also provide an incentive to increase sentences to maximise the availability of prison labour.
However, by vilifying prisoners as being less worthy than "law abiding" citizens, the AWU makes it more difficult to defend the rights of the prisoners.
It also makes it harder to defend the rights of other workers in the long run. Prisoners who are released without any job-training are more likely to accept work in non-unionised lower-paid sections of the economy, which puts pressure on the conditions of higher-paid, unionised workers.
Despite the potential for prison work programs to be used to increase the control of the state over the lives of prisoners, Collins is not opposed to a program that allows some prisoners to engage in the workforce.
However, he said: "Prisoners should be given the chance to train in new areas, gain basic education and skills that will enable them to enter the workforce. Many have health problems, drug addictions etc. and haven't worked or completed any education which would assist them later."
Collins said work release programs that focus on handling prisoners' problems in the community, building capacity and self-esteem would have the potential to dramatically reduce the rates of reoffending by tackling some of the causes.
BHP's "work release" program is being used to paint BHP as a good corporate citizen. However, a motivation for the program is to find workers for jobs that would otherwise be difficult and expensive to fill, reflecting its potential to undermine wages.
Rather than vilify prisoners, a far more effective approach to defending workers' rights is to fight to ensure that prisoners employed on "work release" programs are employed at the prevailing wages and conditions of the sector.
Unions should also fight to ensure the programs cannot be used as extra revenue earners for the prison operators.
[Abridged from Chris Latham's blog, Revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com.]