The old German Democratic Republic went out of existence in 1989 but the archives of the infamous Stasi, the secret police, keep throwing up interesting stories.
It seems that prisoners, many of whom were political opponents of the regime, were used to make cheap products for companies like IKEA, Aldi and the British furniture group MFI.
Is prison labour ever acceptable? The very first clause in the ETI base code states “There is no forced, bonded or involuntary prison labour.”
This clause is based upon international Labour conventions 29 and 105. Convention 105 is concerned solely with a situation where “any form of forced or compulsory labour” is used as a form of punishment for holding political views the government doesn’t like, or taking part in strikes or through discrimination on for example religious or racial grounds.
China and Vietnam have been criticised precisely because prison labour is used as a way of “re-educating” or “rehabilitating” people who don’t like one-party rule by the Communist Party. And ETI member companies are sourcing products for sale on the UK high street from these countries.
A few months ago, I was in Thanh Hoa, in Vietnam, where you can walk into lots of small factories. Plenty of workers were clearly from a local prison, dressed in a distinctive uniform. They were obviously on hire at a cost less than normal wages. Judging from the way the small factory owners came out to urge me into their premises, they’re very used to seeing foreign buyers.
Prison Labour is not against the ILO conventions or the ETI code under certain carefully defined circumstances. Compulsory labour of convicted persons is outside the scope of the ILO conventions provided that it is “carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority” and that prisoners are not “hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations”. The ILO’s independent committee of experts have given guidance on how this should be interpreted. Prisoners have to offer themselves voluntarily for such work and they shouldn’t be subjected to pressure or “menace” in the words of the ILO. The ILO says there needs to be wages, social security and good occupational safety and health provision. As far as possible the conditions of employment of prisoners should approach those of free workers. These conditions clearly don’t apply in China or Vietnam. Perhaps recognising this, the Chinese government has prohibited the export of any commodities made by prison labour.
Are there any examples of acceptable prison labour? In Tigray province in northern Ethiopia, a progressive prison administration has assisted prisoners to organise themselves into ten co-operatives providing goods and services in doing quite well on the local market. Prisoners end up with a reasonable wage. Even after they leave the prison, inmates can remain as members.
So it is theoretically possible for prison labour to be part of the supply chain. However, ensuring that all the safeguards outlined by the ILO are met would require a very thorough investigation. A company would be foolish to accept reassurances that it was legal or met the ILO standard.