Labour, forced labour, and capital – is the ground shifting?

Free people offering their labour in exchange for monetary reward has been fundamental concept for western society. Since the mid-nineteenth century we have not really used forced labour for production.  But two examples in recent times make me wonder if that assumption still holds true:

  1. Prisoners painted room for former UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith
  2. Wisconsin Union Workers Replaced With Prison Labor Under Scott Walker’s Collective Bargaining Law [HT: @umairh and @johnrobb for this link]

We’ve blithely assumed that we will always be able to sell our labour on the free market and that there will be some (more or less depending upon the economic situation) buyers of our labour – hence much xenophobia on the part of many.

We’ve also assumed that our only competitors for selling our labour on the free market are other free people – either native to our lands or foreigners.

Forced labour used to be an important component of the labour market in Australia, after all we were founded as a penal colony for the UK. However, for the most part, in the west we have not had indentured labour since the nineteenth century.

There also appears to be a growing idea that we should also apply ‘user pays’ principles to people who receive support from society. This means that there is a growing notion that prisoners (and the unemployed) owe society something in return for the support that they receive from society.

I wonder how long until western industry works out how they can use the nexus of this ‘user pays’ ideology, the the need to reduce costs, and the adoption of forced labour? It’s interesting to consider this idea given the continued drive to reduce costs and while the prison population is not in a good position to protest their treatment.

UPDATE: And now I see that the redoubtable Douglas Rushkoff is asking Are jobs obsolete? it seems that I’m not the only one with questions about the shifting relationship between labour and capital. Also it appears that in the US the Unemployed face tough competition: underemployed.