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Will Harper Support Hudak's Chain Gangs?

May 27, 2011

3-minute read

Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak has promised to introduce what the Toronto Star calls "modern day chain gangs."

"The Progressive Conservative leader said Thursday that if a Tory government is elected Oct. 6, about 2,700 inmates serving sentences in provincial jails will be forced to work up to 40 hours a week, replacing the voluntary program that exists now. .... Hudak boasted his would be the first mandatory program in Canada, replacing a voluntary system that now has a small and specially chosen number of inmates rewarded with jobs in jail kitchens, laundries and shops making licence plates."

It would seem that this work will, unlike current prison work, be mandatory and unpaid.  Prisoners will be required to perform manual labour off site engaged in such activities as raking leaves and picking up trash, and payment will be in the form of credits to access now free amenities such as watching TV and using recreational facilities.

As critics have noted, the proposal will force up prison costs since extra guards will be needed to supervise work teams and to protect the public. And current jobs could be displaced by work gangs.

Hudak's proposal also violates international human rights standards which start from the core premise that prison work should be rehabilitative rather than punitive.

Canada has ratified the International Labour Organization's Forced Labour Convention #105 which is international law. This does not ban prison labour, which is seen as an appropriate part of a rehabilitative regime, but it does explicitly require such labour to be supervised by a public authority and stipulates that prisoners cannot be forced to work for private contractors. (For that reason, it has not been  ratified by the US or China.)

Hudak's plan - built on the model of Harris era workfare - could well involve supplying prisoners to private contractors to public authorities, especially if municipalities refuse to employ modern chain gangs.

The United Nations has set out Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners .  These rules are not legally binding, but are clearly an important international human rights reference point. They date back to the work of the League of  Nations in the 1920s.

While encouraging the employment of prisoners as a path back to society, they require "equitable remuneration" and are generally protective.

Also worth noting is the fact that Article XX (e) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now incorporated in the rules of the WTO,  allows member countries companies to discriminate against products which  are the product of prison labour. This is the only labour rights provision in the current WTO regime.

The implication of  the international human rights framework is that the federal government will probably have to defend any Hudak provincial  prison work programs at the ILO, the UN and possibly before the WTO.

At a minimum, they should be should be telling Hudak now that he must comply with the ILO and UN rules.

Some key provisions of the UN rules follow:


71. (1) Prison labour must not be of an afflictive nature.

(4) So far as possible the work provided shall be such as will maintain or increase the prisoners, ability to earn an honest living after release.

(5) Vocational training in useful trades shall be provided for prisoners able to profit thereby and especially for young prisoners.

(6) Within the limits compatible with proper vocational selection and with the requirements of institutional administration and discipline, the prisoners shall be able to choose the type of work they wish to perform.

72. (2) Where prisoners are employed in work not controlled by the administration, they shall always be under the supervision of the institution's personnel. Unless the work is for other departments of the government the full normal wages for such work shall be paid to the administration by the persons to whom the labour is supplied, account being taken of the output of the prisoners.

74. (1) The precautions laid down to protect the safety and health of free workmen shall be equally observed in institutions.

(2) Provision shall be made to indemnify prisoners against industrial injury, including occupational disease, on terms not less favourable than those extended by law to free workmen.

75. (1) The maximum daily and weekly working hours of the prisoners shall be fixed by law or by administrative regulation, taking into account local rules or custom in regard to the employment of free workmen.

76. (1) There shall be a system of equitable remuneration of the work of prisoners.

(2) Under the system prisoners shall be allowed to spend at least a part of their earnings on approved articles for their own use and to send a part of their earnings to their family.

(3) The system should also provide that a part of the earnings should be set aside by the administration so as to constitute a savings fund to be handed over to the prisoner on his release.

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