After looking at articles 2 and 3 of the Human Rights Act over the last couple of months, this time I thought I would focus on article 4: Prohibition of Slavery.
Article 4 sets out that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude or be required to perform forced labour unless that labour is work required to be done in the ordinary course of a lawful sentence, part of military service or an equivalent, part of labour required during a time of emergency, or work which forms part of normal civic obligations such as jury duty.
Slavery is a word I hear quite often from other prisoners in reference to the fact that we are not allowed to choose not to work without being punished for it. I personally don’t see it as slavery since we are paid (albeit at a very low rate, far below the national minimum wage). That said, could it constitute slavery under the terms of the Human Rights Act?
I don’t know of any cases being brought before the courts under article 4, but my logic and experience are at odds with one another on this one. From experience I have no doubt that the courts would rule that, because it is a prison rule that prisoners can be required to work, it forms part of their lawful sentence and is therefore exempt from article 4. However, my counter argument based on logic would be that my sentence cannot be defined by the prison service, only by the sentencing judge. In the course of sentencing me the judge said how much time I would have to serve and had it open to him to make certain other orders. That I be required to work was not one of them. He did not sentence me to participate in work or labour of any kind. On that basis, forced labour is not part of my lawful sentence and so I should be entitled to challenge it under Article 4. Experience then kicks back in and I am sure that my logical counter argument would be rejected. The question has to be asked, why?
The rules relating to prison labour are that prisoners cannot be allowed to do a job which takes work away from the local community outside since prisons, with lower overheads, and prisoners, with lower wages, could raise unemployment and potentially cripple the economy if we did. The rules also state that the prison service should not make any profit from the labour of prisoners. They can cover their costs or reinvest what is made, but they cannot make profit. In reality, both rules are frequently broken. At Frankland I spent some time in a furniture assembly workshop and remember working on a set of stools and tables made from oak. Later we found out that these were made to order for an ice cream parlour in Ireland. The job could easily have been done by people outside of prison, and since it was for a private company rather than the public bodies we usually made furniture for (such as other prisons or the fire service) there was clearly payment and profit. This is only one example, but signs of profit are evident in every workshop I have ever worked in, as well as the prison service as a whole. The disparity between the rate that NOMS buys goods at and the rate they then sell them on to prisoners on the canteen is further evidence of how high these profit making activities go. A quick check of a few random products shows that there is an average of a 300% mark up on most goods. That is far more than can be accounted for by delivery and administration indicating that either NOMS is grossly inefficient and in need of a complete overhaul, or they are making obscene amounts of profit out of prisoners who earn as little as £2.50 a week. In my own opinion, it is these profits which would prevent any argument against forced prison labour ever being accepted by the courts who, let’s face it, are simply another branch of the Ministry of Justice, just as the prison service themselves are.
But prohibition of slavery is not just there for prisoners. It is there for everyone. And again I have to ask, why would you want to get rid of the Human Rights Act (and specifically the prohibition against slavery)? Do think there should be slaves in this country? Do you think we should go back to the slave trade? Do you think people should be owned as property? Or would prohibition of slavery be another one of those bits you would keep as a British Bill of Rights? If so, they’re all mounting up. The right to life, prohibition of torture, and prohibition of slavery are all parts of the act we would want to keep. Are there any that we really think we would be better without?
Next month I’ll focus on Article 5: The right to liberty and security, and maybe we’ll find out.