International Hypocrisy: Banning Prison Labor Imports while Allowing Prison Labor at Home

“[T]he picture that emerges is one of slavery. It is one of a ‘justice’ system riddled with racial oppression. It is one of private business taking advantage of these disenfranchised, vulnerable workers. It is one of an entire caste of men relegated, as they have long been relegated, to labor for free, condemned to sow in perpetuity so that others might reap.”

Whitney Benns, Reporter for the Atlantic[i]

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Most prisoners around the U.S. make far less than the federal minimum wage: some make as low as $0.17 an hour in privately run prisons and many throughout the south do not make any money at all.[ii] The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution bans involuntary servitude, but allows involuntary servitude that is “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”[iii] So theoretically, states and private companies are not doing anything unconstitutional by forcing this labor, no matter how inhumane these actions may seem. Perhaps constitutionally protected prison labor would not be such a major issue if the U.S. did not have the largest prison population in the world as well as the highest imprisonment rate, at 716 inmates per 100,000 people.[iv] That rate is about six times Canada’s rate and nine times the rate of Western European countries.[v] Or if the prison complex was not racially skewed and pitted against people of color. Internationally, allowing prison labor at home makes U.S. foreign policy look hypocritical.


The U.S. Position Against Prison Labor

Earlier this year, President Obama signed a law that bans slave and forced labor imports.[vi] Politically this was a huge step that sent an international message that the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to slave labor. Previously, the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 prohibited imports made with any kind of forced labor, but a loophole allowed those imports if there was high consumer demand.[vii] The new law closes that loophole.[viii]

Labor in China

The U.S. has had several problems with China not abiding by the U.S.’ prohibition of forced labor imports or by China’s own law prohibiting forced labor exports.[ix] Specifically, there have been many instances of products made in labor camps inside Chinese prisons being sold in the U.S.[x] In response, the U.S. has taken a firm stance in protecting the rights of people internationally who are subjected to forced labor.

Labor in the U.S.  

Despite this international stance, U.S. law still allows domestic prions to contract with for-profit companies to exploit U.S. citizens and force them into mining, agriculture, and manufacturing—anything from making military weapons to making garments for Victoria’s Secret.[xi] Inmates are required to work if they are cleared by a medical professional and if they refuse to work they are subject to punishment, which includes solitary confinement.[xii] Additionally, most of the workers are not afforded any of the protections that non-incarcerated workers are awarded under U.S. labor law.[xiii] While some may think that prison work instills self-esteem and keeps prisoners out of trouble, “[t]hese workers are vulnerable to the kind of workplace exploitation that America has otherwise deemed inhumane.”[xiv] Others argue that prisoners deserve to work for little to know wages with harsh conditions because, well, they are prisoners.[xv] However, it is important not to be blinded by this philosophy in a day of extreme state action and public policy working against the most vulnerable.[xvi]



I think the most important take away point from the new trade law is the simple saying “people in glass houses should not throw stones.” It’s difficult to take this law seriously when the U.S. allows the very behavior that it prohibits internationally to occur within its borders.

[i] Whitney Benns, American Slavery, Reinvented, The Atlantic, Sept. 21, 2015,
[ii] Alice Speri, Prisoners in Multiple States Call for Strikes to Protest Forced Labor, The Atlantic, Apr. 4, 2016,
[iii] U.S. Const. amend. XIII.
[iv] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Does the United States Really Have Five Percent of the World’s Population and One Quarter of the World’s Prisoner’s?, Wash. Post, Apr. 30, 2015,
[v] Id.
[vi] Sebastian Malo, With New Law, U.S. Takes on Slavery by Banning Forced Labor Imports, Reuters, Feb. 24, 2016,
[vii] U.S. Tariff Act of 1930.
[viii] Malo, supra note 6.
[ix] Shujie Leng, Made in China—But was it Made in Prison?, NPR, Mar. 29, 2014,
[x] Id.
[xi] Benns, supra note 1.
[xii] Id.
[xiii] Id.
[xiv] Id.
[xv] Id.
[xvi] Id.