Slave labour in jails: Prison-Private Partnership(PPP)

Faiz Ullah

From a turnover of Rs. 2.36 Crore in 2004-05 to Rs. 32.17 Crore in 2012-13 Tihar Jail, Delhi is increasingly beginning to mutate into a place prisons have a lot in common with – a factory. The jail factory produces furniture, cloth and apparel, chemicals, paper and snacks among other things. It counts several government bodies, educational institutions, companies and civil society organisations as its clients. All of the merchandise produced here is marketed under the brand name of TJ’s. The idea behind turning large parts of the Jail into several factories, according to its website, is to provide “opportunity of reformation & rehabilitation to the prison inmates” by “channelising their energy towards a positive direction”.

SweatshopIt is the largest prison complex in Asia and held, as of 31 December, 2012, 12,113 inmates against its declared capacity of 6250. Its one-time in-charge, Kiran Bedi, widely seen to be the figure who laid ground for several of the above mentioned initiatives, recognised the potential of an overcrowded jail. She writes in her 2005 book Its Always Possible: Transforming One of the Largest Prisons in the World; “…the jail itself housed the greatest strength—human resource. The human beings confined within the four walls had all the time, energy and the professional skills, which constitute the foundation of any vibrant society”.

Last month, on 5 September, Minda Furukawa Electric Pvt. Ltd. (MFE), a Haryana based automobile parts company, and Tihar Jail formally inaugurated a manufacturing facility within the jail premises, which has since begun producing Wire Harnesses for one of MFE’s clients, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. (MSIL). Speaking to PTI at the inauguration, Delhi Prisons DIG and PRO Mukesh Prasad said that “the inmates will profit in both long term and short term working here. They’ll be paid wages and will gain special work experience which will be very useful for them to rehabilitate themselves after completing their terms here”. In this “socio-business initiative”, according to the MFE press release, 200-250 inmates will reportedly earn the prescribed minimum wage. Mr N.K Taneja, Group Chief Marketing Officer, Spark Minda Group, believes their venture “will certainly produce a sustainable collaborative social business model, which will benefit the convicts of Tihar Jail, their families and victims also”. Parts of inmates’ wages, according to MFE, will go towards welfare funds meant for the families and victims of the working inmates. It is important to note in this context that an overwhelming majority – around 75% – of this human resource, at any given point of time, comprises of under-trials, who in some cases have done more time than the maximum term of imprisonment for offenses they have been charged with.

Plans for expansion of the MFE facility at Tihar are already afoot as the jail authorities “have agreed to facilitate a bigger area for production inside their premises once the production will reach to its full capacity”. The same press release also mentions that one of the MFE’s business group companies, MKTSN, Pirna, has been part of a similar venture in Dresden, Germany since 2005.

In March, earlier this year, MFE plant in Sector-3 Bawal was a site of spontaneous labour action. Around 800 workers of the factory struck work and occupied the plant to protest sexual harassment of one of their female co-worker by three managers of the company. Intimidation at workplace and non-payment of overtime at double rate, they claimed, were common at MFE too. They also complained that their efforts to form an independent union have been consistently thwarted by the management. The workers at MFE have gone on strike earlier in 2008 also to demand “appointment letters to all employees, introduction of a three-shift system and a hike in their overtime allowance”.

This, so called, Public-Private Partnership (PPP) raises several questions. How come a company with dismal labour relations record gets to run a facility within a jail? What laws will govern the joint venture; will the extant labour laws apply there? Do the inmates get to decide the terms, in the coercive environment of a jail, of work and wages on which they will sell their labour? Why, if MFE is so concerned about society, can it not begin with improving working conditions in its existing plants and recognise and respect the rights of its workforce?

Though lauded by a large section of the popular mainstream media the PPP between MFE and Tihar Jail needs to be placed in a larger perspective. From using brute force of the police to using the legal apparatus, where the process itself becomes the punishment, manufacturers all over are trying to suppress civil liberties and political rights of the workers with the active support of the State. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of 147 incarcerated workers of MSIL who have been languishing in jail for over two years now. Their long and tenacious struggle revolved around one key demand; that they be allowed to register an independent union.

Randeep Surjewala, a minister in Haryana Government, at the commencement of trial of the MSIL workers in July 2012 told PTI that “it is our bounden duty to ensure that the guilty be given exemplary punishment with speed…so that punishment to perpetrators of the crime becomes an example for others not to indulge in such incidents”. In May, 2013 the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, in an interim judgment on the bail application of the MSIL workers observed that the “incident is most unfortunate occurrence which has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest out of fear of labour unrest”. The case, it seems, is being mobilised both as a chilling cautionary tale for the working class and as a no-strings-attached promise to the global finance capital.

The story of the incarcerated workers of the MSIL is a perfect example of a case where one can see coming together, in the evocative words of journalist Jonathan Kay, “the very worst qualities of government (its power to coerce) and private enterprise (greed)”. It is not a mere coincidence that Kay made this assertion in the context of the American Prison-Industrial Complex which seem to be the model on which MFE-Tihar Jail like PPP, or Prison-Private Partnership, initiatives are based.

On the other hand an increasingly young and footloose workforce, with literally nothing to lose, is expressing its discontent against inhuman working conditions, precariousness, wage-theft and pervasive denial of civil and political rights in myriad ways. Ways that have still to find their way into B-school case studies and therefore largely remain unintelligible to the managerial class. Rejection of inherited divisions, false hierarchies and traditional political strategies have made today’s worker, in the words of a long-time labour activist, “difficult to manage, or rather unmanageable”. Companies like MFE have probably begun to realise this. That is why perhaps they thought it will be easier to extract value from slave labour than those who have somewhat of a voice.