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poyker1_DAVIDMCNEWAFPGettyImages_convictswalkingwithcoolers David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

America’s Captive Labor

Many Americans may assume that the country’s convict-labor system is a thing of the past, especially given unflattering media coverage of other countries’ reliance on prison labor to produce export goods. But in 2005 – the most recent year for which countrywide data is available – America’s convict-labor system accounted for 4.2% of total manufacturing employment.

NEW YORK – Blaming manufacturing-job losses on low-wage foreign competition, or, increasingly, on automation has become a staple of populist politics in developed countries. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where President Donald Trump campaigned on the issue in 2016 and has since launched a trade war with China. But US workers have long faced another source of competition much closer to home: prison labor.

Many Americans may assume that the country’s convict-labor system is a thing of the past, especially given unflattering Western media coverage of other countries’ reliance on prison labor to produce export goods. But in 2005 – the most recent year for which a fairly complete set of countrywide data is available – America’s convict-labor system employed nearly 1.4 million inmates, of which about 600,000 worked in manufacturing. That is 4.2% of total US manufacturing employment.

America’s prisons represent a large and growing pool of available labor: since 1932, the number of inmates in the US has soared, from approximately 140,000 to more than 2.2 million in 2014. They used to work for companies like Walmart and Whole Foods Market (see this list for other examples); yet they earn less than $1 per hour, on average – far less than the legal minimum wage for non-incarcerated workers. As a result, convict labor is not only exploitative; it also distorts market competition.

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