Slave labour in Britain continues this Christmas

Contrary to popular belief slavery has NOT been abolished in Britain. Behind high walls and locked doors it still flourishes.

Submitted by libcom on December 20, 2005

Spare a thought during this years Consumer Christmas Hellish-day season for those who won’t be pulling a cracker round the family table.

People are being forced to toil in poor conditions, beyond the reach of health and safety inspectors, denied even the most basic employment and trade-union rights, and severely punished if they refuse to work. In British prisons, there exists a readily exploitable labour force, a Third World colony in Britain’s own backyard, cheap, non-unionised, available, and literally compelled to work. The prison population now stands at a record 78,000 and rising. Of those, 10,000 prisoners are put to work every day.

“In order to obtain this information we are relying on prisoners, their friends, and families, to let us know what’s happening in the British penal slave shops, to let us know which companies are contracting the work, what its nature is, and how much (or rather how little) prisoners are being paid. The very fact that the secrecy surrounding prisoner exploitation can be broken, and prison slavery be put on the agenda, will in itself have an effect on the Home Office’s ability to sell prisoners’ labour” – Campaign Against Prison Slavery.

As New Labour continues to push the prison system towards the kind of public-private partnership it loves so much, it’s no surprise that some well known companies have got in on this highly profitable act. Despite all the corporate hogwash about ‘Social Responsibility’ and ‘Ethical Trading Initiatives’, Prison Enterprises, the part of the prison system which cooks the books and sets up the contracts is doing business directly, or indirectly, with ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Tesco and Argos among many others in the usual suspects style line-up. The likes of Wakenhut and Group 4 are now running whole prisons, the productivity of whose ‘work force’ is a vital part of the profit margin.

Of course according to the government and the corporations, it’s all about helping to rehabilitate prisoners and set them on the straight and narrow. Curiously though, these companies are reluctant to comment on the exact nature of their contracts. But according to an inside source from the Scottish Prison Service (who run in an identical manner to their counterparts in England & Wales and have a turnover of £3 million a year) “This is low-skilled ‘no braining’ work and is of no benefit to the rehabilitation of the actual individual. I feel sorry for some of the prisoners as they are offered false hope and are worked like dogs.” A survey conducted at Dovegate Prison (category B male prison owned by Premier Custodial Services - UK trading name of Wakenhut…) in August 2002 showed that the work undertaken consisted of: assembly of TV aerials, packing of balloons, assembly of lawn aerators, cleaning of aluminium moulded parts for machinery, packing of household textiles. and the production of pallets. And for this life-enhancing drudgery, wages were a maximum of a massive £26.00 a week.

According to the Campaign against Prison Slavery (CAPS),“In British prisons, there have been savage cuts in education budgets over the past half decade, any pretence at rehabilitating prisoners and empowering them with trade skills has been abandoned. If prisoners refuse to work, or are not considered to be working hard enough, they are punished - placed in solitary confinement, brutalised, denied visits, having days added to their sentences. Private companies are making enormous profits from prison labour, £52.9 Million in 1999, and that figure is growing rapidly. They use it because it is CHEAP - prisoners may be paid less than £5 for a week’s work - and for prisoners there are no ‘sickies’, no holidays, no union meetings, no transport problems, and if there’s no work they can simply be locked back in their cells. Prisoners are treated as the bosses would like to treat all of us.”

Prison slavery is a useful way for companies to outsource all those labour–intensive, tedious tasks and undermine the rights and negotiating power of their own work force. Armitage Petcare is a supplier to ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Tesco and uses Lowdham Grange prison in Nottingham for basic packaging. Sainsbury’s used prison labour to package plastic spoons in HMP Lewes. SchNEWS’ contact (literally) on the inside told us “it’s probably best to wash the spoons before you use them”. The Ecologist magazine was using (a few years ago admittedly) Holloway women’s prison as a handy way of sticking leaflets in their mag - maybe it’s no surprise that editor Zac Goldsmith is now advising the Tories on greenwash.) Airsprung Beds ltd – suppliers to Argos have been using the Scottish Prison Service to manufacture divan beds. The employees of Dysons, the vacuum-cleaner manufacturer, were sacked when Dysons decided to use cheap non-unionised labour in Malaysia, but how many Dysons’ workers knew that for some time the company had been using cheap, non-unionised labour at Full Sutton prison?

This is of course just a tiny sample; unsurprisingly the latter-day slave-masters are keen to keep their involvement secret - from their own employees, and from the wider public, aware that the issue could be a PR partypooper. Hiding behind ‘commercial confidentiality’, most of the contracts are kept secret or farmed out to middle-men. Most of the major companies named above subscribe to some form of corporate responsibility bollocks – in fact Sainsbury’s are founder members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a ‘voluntary’ code of conduct which ‘strives towards’ ensuring the absence of forced labour. Given that the alternative to this sweatshop labour is 23 hours a day locked up SchNEWS reckons they’re not striving all that hard.

In terms of pimping out prison labour to greedy companies the Home Office are relying on being able to assure not only its cheapness and reliability, but also ensure anonymity. Few of the companies exploiting forced prison labour would be comfortable with their employees and customers knowing about it. A primary aim of CAPS is to secure reliable and up to date information on these slave companies, and to expose them and target them. If you’ve got anything you reckon they ought to know then contact them (or us!) at [email protected] or PO Box 74 Brighton BN1 4ZQ or check out their website at