The combination of a growing prison population in the United States and the interest of many employers in finding new sources of low-wage labor has raised important issues about the use of incarcerated workers and the sale of goods and services made by prison industries.
Organized labor nationally and in the states has consistently supported efforts to provide training opportunities for prisoners to help in their rehabilitation and to reduce recidivism, but always with the caution that prisoners should never be used in competition with free labor or to replace free labor.
Increasingly, however, prison labor is being used in both the states and by the federal government to perform work in both the private and public sectors ordinarily done by free workers. Twenty-one states have statutes that compel prisoners to work, and others enforce policies that penalize inmates who refuse to work. Prison laborers are generally denied coverage under minimum wage, unemployment compensation, workers_ compensation, collective bargaining and other worker protection laws.
The use of inmate labor in this manner appears to violate Convention No. 105, adopted by the International Labor Organization in 1957 and ratified by the United States in 1991, which prohibits the use of forced or prison labor for economic development.
The AFL-CIO opposes the widespread use of prison labor throughout the public and private sectors in the United States in unfair competition with free labor. We call on the federal government and the states to end any promotional programs to encourage employers to set up shop in federal or state prisons as an alternative to creating jobs and hiring workers in the general population and in direct, intentional competition with private- sector employers. We further call upon the federal government to vigorously enforce laws and regulations designed to prevent prison work programs that unfairly compete with free labor.