Tuesday, November 3, 2009

BHP and South Australian Govenment Agree to Establish a Prison “Work Release” Program at Olympic Dam

Lisbeth Latham

On October 6, BHP and the South Australian Department of Corrections announced a new agreement allowing BHP to employ prisoners from Port Augusta Prison. The move to allow BHP to employ prisoners raises important questions regarding both the rights of prisoners and the broader rights of workers in Australia. The move also raises questions regarding the character of Australian prisons particularly as there continues to be pushes for prison privatisation in a number of states.

Under the agreement, a small group of prisoners who are close to completing their prison terms would be given the opportunity to 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 that has been running from Port Augusta Prison since 1996. As part of the project prisoners would be provided with job training which is nationally recognised. In addition workers could potentially be offered further employment with BHP following their release from prison.
Such “work release” programs already exist in many states, however the program with BHP is the first systematic program with a large employer. According to Brett Collins, from prisoners rights organisation Justice Action, what normally occurs with such programs is that prisoners or their families suggest a possible employer, and the departments of corrections will then determine whether a “work release” is possible.

In response to the announcement elected officials from the Australian Workers Union (AWU), have made a number of critical statement regarding the agreement. Paul Howes, AWU National Secretary, said in a media release 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”. Howes continued "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 in identifying that prison work programs can be used as a mechanism 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 a down pressure on the wages and conditions of other workers. Such pushes have a significant impact on the use of prison sentences. According to Collins incarceration costs approximately $75, 000 per person per year and about three times that for juveniles. Using prisoners as a labour force would potentially provide a mechanism to offset this cost and indeed function as an incentive to increase sentences to maximise the availability of prison labour.

However by attempting to vilify prisoners as being less worthy than “law abiding” citizens the AWU makes it more difficult to defend the rights of either the prisoners being vilified or the broader section of workers whose rights prisoners are seen as undermining as it makes it even more difficult for them to obtain employment upon release and makes them more likely to have to accept work wherever they are able to obtain it – which will be in non-unionised lower paid sections of the economy.

Despite the potential for prison work programs to be used to increase the control of the state over lives of prisoners, Collins is not opposed to a program that allows some prisoners to engage in the workforce. However Collins says that “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”.

According to Collins such a program, which focuses 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 the some of the causes. Collins said “we feel that it is important to preserve and support it [work release programs]. It means they can create a nest egg and start supporting their family again”.

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. However, 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 wage rate and conditions of the sector and to ensure that there is no move to attempt to use the programs as additional revenue earners for prisons.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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