Corporate Slavery: Does It Still Exist?

AuthorWall, Alison E.


Most modern day societies view the concept of any form of slavery as reprehensible, yet forms of it continue to exist. Slavery can include any situation in which a person is being exploited in exchange for labor without the ability to leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power, or deception. Countless organizations and individuals throughout history have lent their voice in opposition to it. For example, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed the basic human right to be free from slavery, admonished slave trade around the world, and plainly stated the wrongs of slavery in Article 4, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms" (United Nations, 1948). In addition, most of the world's religions include some form of mutual respect in their teachings which would be violated by the use of slave labor. In fact, on September 4, 1993, representatives from many of the world's religions met in Chicago and created a document titled, Declaration Toward a Global Ethic that addressed the general religious consensus on slavery and included the following phrases regarding the rules society should live by when applying their collective teachings: "We must treat others as we wish others to treat us," "No person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen, or be exploited in any way whatsoever," and "We must strive for a just social and economic order, in which everyone has an equal chance to reach full potential as a human being" (Parliament of the World's Religions, 1993, p. 2). From a non-religious perspective, this evaluation can be likened to ethical concepts of universalism and the "Golden Rule." Further, almost every country has laws against slavery, although those laws are inconsistently enforced and it can be difficult to track illegal behavior. In spite of these general perceptions and laws, slavery is still quite common and, while estimates are not exact, figures have shown that up to 46 million individuals are victims of modern slavery each day (Global Slavery Index, 2016). Forced labor and slavery are most prevalent in five sectors of the U.S. economy: prostitution and sex services, domestic service, agriculture, factory work, and restaurant and hotel work (Batstone, 2007). Modern slavery can take several forms, however, the main forms that involve legal businesses and corporations include prison labor, sweatshops and child labor, and forced migrant labor and human trafficking.


Prison Labor

As many prisons are still public and government-run, it is important to acknowledge that a government is not a corporation, so any forced labor likely couldn't be qualified as corporate slavery. Arguably, however, corporations can draw from that forced labor pool, thus creating an interdependence in which the government is obligated to provide a set amount of "employees" from their prisoners and creates incentives to increase the labor pool through more restrictive sentencing for crimes. As such, the existence of corporate slavery in prisons is controversial. For example, Penn Law School professor, Stephanos Bibas, argued that not sending prisoners to work is harmful to them and to the American people and changing the law to allow prisoners to work without wage law interference would keep them occupied, allow them to learn job skills they could use once released, compensate the justice system and their victims, and foster a sense of discipline (Salam, 2013).

The US currently incarcerates the largest percentage of its population over any other country. In fact, the number of individuals incarcerated in 1980 was just under half a million, which grew to a staggering 2.3 million in 2008, and then dropped somewhat to roughly 2.2 million by 2016 (Gramlich, 2018). With around 2.2 million inmates in federal, state, and private prisons in the U.S., prison labor has grown into a billion-dollar industry providing products and services to private corporations, nonprofits, and federal and state agencies (Goodridge, Schwartzer, Jantz, & Christian, 2018). The 13th amendment of the United States Constitution, which was ratified in 1865, officially outlawed involuntary servitude in the U.S., "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The vague wording of the 13th amendment allows for the abuse and exploitation of inmates' labor as it does not define any particular set of circumstances under which the involuntary labor of prisoners would not be allowed. Therefore, it is not unconstitutional to force prisoners, even those with non-violent offenses, to labor for the state. In fact, a prisoner who refuses to work can be punished with solitary confinement or the loss of visitation privileges (Kozlowska, 2016). For cases of extremely abusive and dangerous punishment or working conditions, prisoners may be able to bring constitutional claims of cruel and unusual punishment. However, this type of claim is often challenging to bring (Dougherty, 2007) and does not address fair wages and other forms of discrimination. As such, prison labor is an extremely complicated concept with multiple facets, where instances of possible corporate slavery are intertwined with routine, legal labor.

Further, while the Ashurst-Sumners Act amendment of 1940 made the direct public consumption of goods produced by prisoners in the open market illegal, the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) was created in 1979 as an exception to this restriction. PIECP allows prisons to contract with private organizations to produce goods to sell on the national open market and, as of 2016, 47 U.S. jurisdictions were PIECP certified, employing a total of 5,435 inmates nationally (Goad, 2017). Under PIECP, prison workers are considered to be directly employed by the participating private organizations. As such, PIECP-certified programs must pay wages that are comparable to those earned by civilians performing similar work in the same region (Goad, 2017). However, despite receiving taxpayer funds, corrections departments are allowed to withhold money from prisoners' paychecks for room and board, restitution for victims, domestic support obligations, and taxes, leaving incarcerated workers under this program to earn roughly $98.00 per month (Goad, 2017). As a result, the average wage for inmates in the U.S. is 93 cents per hour and can fall as low as 16 cents per hour after deductions, even when employed at private organizations (Bozelko, 2017). While this practice appears inconsistent with federal minimum wage laws, it is still controversial as to whether it constitutes corporate slavery. In addition, inmates who have brought lawsuits alleging unfair wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or claims of discrimination under Title VII, have been overwhelmingly ruled against as a majority of U.S. federal courts have consistently held that inmates do not fall under the definition of "employee" because "incarcerated workers and the institutions for which they work are in nonmarket or noneconomic relationships" and are not in an employer/employee relationship (Goad, 2017, p. 189). Other federal courts have simply held that inmates are not employees because the essence of the social relationship between the inmate and the correctional facility is based primarily on incarceration and not employment (Goad, 2017). Furthermore, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces employment laws like Title VII and the Equal Pay Act, maintains that while employment antidiscrimination laws may apply in situations where prisons unfairly discriminate or interfere with prisoners' employment with outside employers involving work release programs, no employment relationship exists between the prison and its prisoners as this "employment relationship" flows out of the prisoners' incarceration (Threshold Issues, n.d.).

While prisoners are unable to unionize or receive any benefits from the corporations that profit from their...

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