Prisoners in Australia are being sent out to work at supermarkets, laundries and mines under a controversial scheme which aims to provide a pool of low-wage workers while allowing inmates to improve their job prospects.
Under the scheme, which is being run in the Northern Territory, prisoners can earn about A$16 (S$20) an hour. They do not get to keep the entire salary, with 5 per cent going into a fund for victims, A$125 a week for their lodgings and A$60 a week for spending money. The rest is put into an individual trust fund and paid out after their release.
The territory's government, which calls the scheme "Sentenced to a Job", says prisoners have been hired as waiters, labourers, screen printers, plumbers, retail staff and laundry workers. The public and private sectors are allowed to hire the inmates, who could have as much as A$20,000 saved up by the time they leave prison.
"Prisoners gain the skills to seek, gain and retain employment upon release (and) are taught the importance of work in our society," says a description of the scheme on the territory's website.
"Aside from the benefits to the lives of the prisoners and the NT (Northern Territory) community, employing prisoners can be of significant benefit to a business' bottom line."
However, the scheme came under fire after some prisoners were sent to work in a remote salt mine, prompting claims of "slave labour". The low-security prisoners stay in a camp about 250km from Alice Springs and are trained to work at a potash project.
The territory's largest union, United Voice, says the workers are being exploited and underpaid, and that the scheme risks taking jobs from miners. It notes the workers are paid less than half the market rate for salt miners, which is about A$35 an hour. "This is manipulating the system and exploiting people who have no say in what is going on," union secretary Matthew Gardiner told The Straits Times.
"There is now a cheap source of labour being brought into a very profitable area. Bigger multinationals may go the same way. It will create a market of cheap labour across the board," he added.