Prison labour: a vehicle for reintegration or exploitation?

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In 1987, prison labour in France became a right rather than an obligation, and takes on different forms.

There is, first of all, what is known as general service work. Inmates in this category, known as "auxiliaries", are employed by the prison authorities to perform the tasks involved in maintaining or running the prison, such as cooking or serving meals.

Then there is production work. Inmates in this category, known as ’operators’, work for the Industrial Board of Prison Establishments (RIEP) or for a private company.

Although a degree of skill is sometimes required for jobs provided by the Industrial Board, it is largely unqualified work involving simple, repetitive tasks with little added value, such as packing, assembling, folding or cutting.

As a result, according to the Observatoire international des prisons (OIP), the inmates’ experience during their time in prison "only reinforces their negative image of work".

"There is no reintegration dimension to most prison work. It is more occupational than anything else," it denounces.

Working is, nonetheless, a way for inmates to make a living and is a key factor in the granting of a reduced sentence by the authority in charge of sentence enforcement.

And yet figures show that only a quarter of the prison population has work.

According to the 2011 report of the Contrôleur Général des Lieux de Privation de Liberté (CGLPL), the independent public authority in charge of ensuring respect for the fundamental rights of persons deprived of their freedom, 17,497 incarcerated persons had a paid job in 2011, which corresponds to just 27.7 per cent of the 63,000 persons in detention that year.

"If all inmates were able to get a job, then yes, it would be a means of fostering a calm prison environment, but this is not the case," laments Marie Crétenot, a legal expert at the OIP, in an interview with Equal Times.

 

Cheap labour

A number of private companies also call on the labour services offered by the prison authorities. Total discretion is used and most of them choose to conceal their identity.

"They simply don’t want their business image to be associated with crime or the exploitation of cheap labour," writes the CGLPL in its 2011 report.

As a way of protecting their anonymity, some go through subcontractors and, in some instances, sign confidentiality clauses to ensure their names are not divulged.

To convince companies to use prison labour, flexibility and cheap labour are presented as the main pluses offered by France’s 191 prison establishments.

On its website, the prison authorities, which did not respond on time to our request for an interview, underlines the "financial gains" as well as the "flexibility" and "reactivity" derived from being able to "quickly mobilise a large number of operators to respond to orders".

Despite these persuasive arguments, growth in the sector has stagnated over recent years, with prison labour now facing increased competition from the Eastern European or North African countries to which production is being relocated.

"And since the prison authorities’ involvement in the services sector is limited, offers of work are falling," explains the OIP.

As indicated in Article 717-13 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which governs life in detention, "the employment relationships of incarcerated persons are not covered by an employment contract".

The only regulations that apply are those of health and safety.

Prisoners, therefore, have no right to paid leave, to form or join a trade union, or to sick pay.

"The fact that the labour legislation does not apply to them creates a sense of exploitation among prisoners," denounces Marie Crétenot.

They can, however, acquire pension rights by paying social contributions.

But given how low their pay is, they struggle to validate their quarters; so where an employee who is paid the official minimum wage (SMIC) covers four quarters a year, a prisoner only validates one.

Whilst there is no employment contract, Article 33 of the Penitentiary Law of 2009 provides for the signing of a "hiring document" between the head of the establishment and the detained person, which covers the employee’s occupational rights and obligations, pay and working conditions.

In 2010, a Decree was passed specifying the terms and conditions with regard to pay: 45 per cent of the hourly minimum wage (SMIC) for production work (€4.05 an hour - US$5.04), and between 20 and 33 per cent for general service jobs (€1.80 to €2.97 an hour - US$2.24 to US$3.50).

But as the CGLPL notes, wages are, in fact, often "lower than the minimum thresholds set by the Decree".

"The result is very low pay and major variations from one establishment to another," it points out.

Some prisoners are still paid piece rates, in breach of the law. In some instances, piece workers spend the whole day in their cells, taking part in no other activity, and even work in the evening after dinner and sometimes at night to reach the target set by the company.

According to the OIP, the average monthly wage of a prisoner in France is €200 (US$ 249). This amount corresponds to the cost of living in detention: the cost of renting a television, a fridge, phone calls and the purchase of tobacco, food and toiletries.

 

Justice for prisoners?

Over recent years, a number of prisoners have decided to take legal action to ensure compliance with the hourly rate of pay established by law and the conversion of the "hiring document" into an employment contract.

In 2011, a prisoner working for a call centre was dismissed for making personal phone calls.

The Appeal Court of Paris deemed her pay to be "derisory" and ruled that she be paid €2358 (US$2939) in back pay, at the same time as pointing out, however, that the worker was not bound to her employer by an employment contract.

Two years later, two inmates of the Metz prison, in eastern France, presented the Labour Court with an "application for a priority preliminary ruling on the issue of constitutionality" (QPC), a procedure whereby the constitutionality of laws already passed can be challenged.

In this instance, the issue was the working conditions in detention and the absence of an employment contract. In June 2013, the Constitutional Court finally rejected the QPC.

"The chancery accepts that the administration flouts the rules. There have been nearly a dozen court cases over the last two years, that should be enough for things to change," considers Crétenot.

"The administration is regularly condemned over wage issues," Sylvain Gaucher, a lawyer specialised in prison law, tells Equal Times.

"But because most prisoners never take legal action, it costs it less to break the law."

Although the courts are ruling in favour of inmates taking legal action over their appalling pay, the justice system does not yet seem ready have the labour law introduced into prisons.

 

This story has been translated from French.