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We need to talk about the "S" word

Working inside – modern slavery or moral opportunity?


workRestart aims to empower people with an experience of incarceration to restart their lives and positively contribute to the community they live in. We tackle gritty, complex problems with fearless compassion by providing employment opportunities inside and outside.

We are social innovators and we don’t shy away from hard conversations – and for some people, this is one. It’s a conversation we’ve had more often lately with the Modern Slavery Act coming into force, so we thought we’d outline the range of views on work in prisons and share our philosophy.


Since the first prisons were built, work or ‘industries’ on the inside have been an important part of prison operations. Traditionally, work has been based around daily activities and operational requirements of prisons (for example kitchen, laundry and maintenance) or working in production-based industries like metalwork and woodwork which can provide funding for the prison. Regardless of the nature of work, employment opportunities on the inside provide a focus and activity for inmates which supports better mental health. Work on the inside can also provide valuable ‘on the job’ training, because more than half the people in prison in Australia have very little work experience, and we know that getting a job is key to helping to break the cycle of recidivism.


On the outside, people are paid for the work they do. But what about inside?


The criminal code states that an incarcerated person is not able to earn an income while in prison, but they can be paid a very small amount for work they do. This amount is below what would be considered an award wage on the outside.


So – is a prisoner working for a business behind bars considered to be a modern slave because they cannot be paid an award wage?


Modern slavery is defined as ‘forced labour’ (Modern Slavery Act 2018).

People incarcerated in Australia are not forced to work. There are a range of work opportunities in prisons and prisoners can apply for these positions should they wish to work. In our experience, there are always more people wanting to work than available positions.


The answer is no, according to current Australian legislation and practices, but how does this sit from an ethical standpoint? There are a range of views.


Prisoner action groups advocate for a fair wage paid for a fair day’s work. Many incarcerated people have debts they have to repay, fines, legal fees and families to support. Being able to earn an income while incarcerated would go a long way to help with those things so they can start afresh when they are released.


Those in opposition to a fair wage point to the fact it costs on average $111,000 per year to incarcerate an individual. Paying wages would dramatically increase the amount of money spent on incarceration (which is already costs Australia more than $4 billion annually). If the same principles apply on the inside as outside, then prisoners would need to pay for accommodation and food, which would put many further into debt and exacerbate the cycle.


Others suggest that any pay received by an incarcerated person should be put towards restitution to families and the community they offended against – which would again mean they don’t receive anything for their work. Some in the community still hold the hard-line stance that forced labour is appropriate (which is a little Elizabethan in our opinion).


Companies that sub-contract work inside generally incur additional expenses and experience a 60% productivity outcome compared to industry on the outside. If they were to pay award wages, it would cost them more to have the work inside than on the outside, which wouldn’t be feasible and would limit opportunities for training on the inside.


As we said – a complex challenge.


Many incarcerated people want to work while inside, regardless of whether they are paid (but like most of us, they would prefer to be paid!). Doing something active and constructive is essential for their mental health and well-being. Working in an area that can provide an employment pathway for them on release provides hope for a different future.


Given incarcerated people can’t be paid award wages for their work, but work is essential for them while inside and for their future, perhaps an ethical view is ‘how can a person achieve ‘value’ for the work they do while incarcerated?


Money is one form of value exchange for effort.

What other value exchanges could we explore?

We think we have a solution in our social enterprise model.

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