05 May 2012
During the current election campaigns, much will be made about high unemployment. The Reagan-Bush-Bush era of economics led to the 2008 financial crisis, with Republicans' willingness to promote corporate welfare through tax breaks, corporate bailouts, insider trading, and a hands-off approach by regulatory agencies. Historically, many corporations have bypassed the American labor force (with its expectations of decent wages, health care benefits, and humane working conditions) by hiring undocumented immigrants at low wages. Paradoxically, the neocon fuss over immigration has meant a partial reversal of the flow of workers, especially those originating in Mexico. The corporate plan B is offshoring ~ moving manufacturing to other countries whose people are willing to work for low wages. It is cost-effective for corporations ~ too bad that the consequence has been fewer jobs available for American workers. For CEOs who make 400 times what their employees earn, it's all about profit, regardless of who gets left behind.
In addition to undocumented immigrants (who perform labor most Americans refuse, and ought to be allowed into the country under work visas), and workers living in other countries (in true sweatshop conditions unregulated by American standards), I've learned of a third labor pool, a literal captive audience ~ prison inmates. Steven Fraser and Joshua Freeman in Salon wrote an article titled 21st Century Chain Gangs, in which they've compiled information which should outrage anyone concerned about the economy. Here is an excerpt ~
"Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It can be found across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain. Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the US incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.
"These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day. Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance ~ unless, that is, you traveled back to the 19th century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide.
" .... What some historians call 'the Long Depression' of the 19th century, which lasted from the mid-1870s through the mid-1890s, was marked by frequent panics and slumps, mass bankruptcies, deflation and self-destructive competition among businesses designed to depress costs, especially labor costs. So too, we are living through a 21st century age of panics and austerity with similar pressures to shrink the social wage. Convict labor has been and once again is an appealing way for business to address these dilemmas."
The only problem? The practice is morally bankrupt, and ought to be illegal as well. What sort of integrity, what degree of empathy, is possessed by someone who is willing to use a position of power to take advantage of those deprived of their rights? If you or I become dissatisfied with working conditions, we at least have the freedom (even under the financial pressure of the recession) to quit and find another job. Prisoners have no such freedom.
But then, Wall Street and corporate America have clearly demonstrated over the past thirty years that they have no qualms (and certainly no moral compass) when it comes to enhancing their wealth and power. The Occupy Movement has it right ~ capitalism has been corrupted beyond recognition. Our democracy has become an oligarchy, ruled by the wealthy. As the financial gap between the richest 1% and the rest of us widens, and a paralyzed Congress is bought and paid for by corporations, who will have the courage and independent spirit to step forward and insist on reform? A few try. We need more.
One more thing ~ incarceration is the job of government. Private, for-profit prisons hire poorly-trained security staff, tolerate the abuse of inmates, and should be abolished. They are one more example of the corruption inherent in outsourcing.