Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The ethics of employing prisoners

A solar energy company has come under fire for employing inmates from Prescoed open prison in its call centre in Wales. The scheme has attracted cricisim for two main reasons: the company pays the prisoners just £3 per day and it has also fired a significant number of workers since appointing the prisoners, inviting speculation that they were laid off to be replaced by cheap labour - an accusation the company has denied.

This issue may not be as clear cut as it first appears. On a recent Business Leaders tour, organised by the excellent Connect Reading, I heard how hard it is for former prisoners to find a job, which in turn leads to a higher risk of re-offending. So, in theory, anything that provides practical work experience and the opportunity to demonstrate that offenders can perform to the same standard as other workers should be a good thing. Is bussing prisoners into workplaces materially different to the kind of in-house programme run by Gordon Ramsay Behind Bars? Perhaps not - but for me, the core issue lies in the way prisoners are remunerated.

Just like offshoring jobs to developing countries, I feel that taking advantage of the opportunity to pay prisoners far less than the legal minimum wage is unacceptable. Especially in times of economic crisis, UK companies have a moral obligation to support their home labour force and invest in the domestic economy. Equally, I have some sympathy with the argument that work experience can help ex-offenders become productive and law-abiding members of society. So how to ensure that cheap prisoner labour doesn't erode the job prospects of regular workers?

One control already in place is a quota system - no more than 20% of a company's staff can be drawn from the prison community. But the fact that an upper limit is needed just seems to reinforce the notion that the main appeal to employers lies in the low cost of prisoner labour. So, what if the minimum wage legislation was applied to prisoners? While it might not be appropriate for those serving sentences to take home the same wage as a non-offender, the difference between what the employer pays and what the prisoner can keep could be contributed to a victim support fund.

This seems to me quite an elegant solution - it avoids the prison population becoming a source of cheap labour and it is likely to appeal to an entirely different segment of the business community. It moves the emphasis right away from low-cost labour and towards prisoner rehabilitation and it introduces a new element of social contribution - something that could sit quite comfortably with the CSR agenda of an ethical business.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has declared an intention to double the number of prisoners working full time, but this is apparently the first time that prisoners have been allowed to work outside prison premises. Now that the precedent has been set, it's important to ensure that prisoner outworking is put on a proper footing.

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