Placing profits over people by Julianne Malveaux
1/2/2020, 6 a.m.
Who would have thought that amid the Christmas holidays we would learn that billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg is using convicted prisoners to make calls for his campaign?
He will say he did not know, or that “anybody” might have made a similar mistake. After all, sub- contracting is the name of the predatory capitalist game. That’s how a convict labor exploiter can bid to pay $7.25 an hour for a job that might pay $11 or $12 an hour on the open market.
However, the prisoners will see nothing like $7.25 an hour. Try paying these folks just a dollar an hour or so. The subcontractor, who pays the incarcerated just a dollar for a fair wage, would have to pay 10 times that in the regular job sector. Someone who was not exploiting convict labor couldn’t compete with the low pay prisoners are earning.
Those who own stock in these prison labor companies are getting their profits, too. The companies who subcontract with prisons are making three or four times what they might earn if they used general labor.
The use of convict labor is one of the cruelest illustrations of the evils of predatory capitalism. Predatory capitalists extract surplus resources by tilting the rules of the game to favor capital instead of labor. People who are working full time are getting pennies to the dollar in the name of “crime and punishment.”
So, here’s the Bloomberg story. The three-term mayor of New York contracted with a firm to make phone calls for his fledgling campaign. The women, incarcerated at a facility in Oklahoma, are obliged to say they are calling for the Bloomberg campaign. They don’t have to disclose that they are incarcerated. Anyone receiving a call is given the impression that they are being called by a campaign volunteer, not an exploited worker.
Oklahoma limits the amount of money an inmate can make to $27 a month. This money may go for things like phone calls, snacks or other “prison comfort.”
If Pro Com, the company that runs the prison work, says it pays $7.25 an hour for prison labor, but inmates can’t earn more than $27 a month, who wants to bet that these prisoners are working just four hours to reach their maximum monthly pay? Or is Oklahoma paying them a dollar or so an hour and profiting from their work by keeping the rest of the money?
In this 21st century, we are mired in a 19th century predatory convict labor system. Inmates aren’t only making phone calls for Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign.They also are making furniture for state office build- ings, processing motor vehicle requests and being used as low-cost substitutes for workers who might be fairly paid. The worst of it is that the work inmates are doing does not guarantee them a job post-incarceration.
Instead, their “experience” opens no doors for any future opportunities.
Lots of people like to play “woke” and economically pro- gressive. But if your “woke” and cost-cutting ways sideline the people who work for you, then you aren’t actually “woke.” You are just a predatory capitalist placing profits over people. Economic justice and profit maximization may be incompatible.
After he was outed, Mr. Bloomberg said he and his campaign did not know that Pro Com had contracted with the convict labor providers, and he moved to sever the relationship quickly. Good for him. But he is smart enough to ask questions before contracting.
African-Americans are nearly half of those incarcerated in this country, despite being just about 13 percent of the population. This incarceration is a throwback to enslavement when black folks got major penalties for minor offenses. The convict labor system especially oppresses black people, and the Bloomberg case makes it all too apparent.
Convict labor is exploitation and an abomination. It makes black bodies a profit center for capitalistic exploitation. Companies like Pro Com must be held accountable, but so should the many others who thrive on contract labor. It is time to put an end to this exploitation.
Instead of throwing billions into his long-shot campaign, why can’t Mr. Bloomberg spend a billion or two stopping convict labor?
The writer is an economist, author and educator.