Sunday, October 21, 2007

Forced labours

All along History no government has ever ceased trying prisoners to generate wealth through forced labour. In fact, prisons have their origin in the accommodations for slaves, a compulsory labour force that existed since ancient times in Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Roma and Islamic caliphates. Slaves came from criminals, war prisoners and abandoned children, besides the slaves' children themselves.

In the Middle Age, the Carolingian Empire was supported by a 20% of slave population, but because of the Church's ban, this practice was abandoned between Christians. This relationship evolved from the 10th Century towards serfdom, in which the peasant was bounded to the land and the master. This system endured all around the World, with variations, from feudal lords in Europe to shogunates in Japan. In England it disappeared during the 17th Century and in France in 1789, but in Eastern Europe it remained until the mid-19th Century.

A modern serfdom form is the indenture, under which workers sign temporary contracts according to which they are only paid by accommodation and feeding. This labour practice was dominant in early colonial societies during the 17th and 18th Centuries, and is still common in developing countries, such as India and Bangladesh.

In 1452, the Pope Nicholas V issued the Bull "Dum Diversas", which allowed Christian kings to reduce Saracens, pagans and unbelievers to hereditary slavery. This fact started the massive traffic of black slaves, that remained until the abolition during the 19th Century. Thanks to the collaboration of most powerful African empires (Shongay, Benin), Europeans substituted Arabs as main African slave exporters. These slaves were mainly settled in American colonies, to work in large plantations. Even after the slavery abolition, southern states of the United States adopted the "Black Codes" that imposed forced labour and right to body punishment for blacks, remaining until 1866. Nowadays, slavery still exists in form of people traffic (specially women and children) kidnapped to practise sexual or labour slavery. There are currently more than 27 million slaves in the World.

Prisons and colonies

It is only with the appearance of the modern concept of punishment gradation that prisons are institutionalised. Before that, imprisonment was for political opponents, as common criminals were executed or sent to galleys (French king Louis XIV reduced death sentences so that he could build a well provisioned navy). With the capitalist and industrial economic development, and the consequent emigration to the cities, the authorities tried to convert the new masses of poor and unemployed in a profitable force, and buildings with penitentiary functions were made.

During the 18th Century, new humanist and utopic socialist ideas defined delinquent as a victim of the social order, and defended prisons as a means to correction with necessary long sentences, which lead to a massification of prisons. This way prisons were provided with complex vigilance systems, as these were supposed beneficial for the development of regret, same way that control over workers was an improvement in their work performance.

Because of the costly storage of so many prisoners, Britain was first to apply forced labour during the 19th Century (in mines or building of infrastructures), but not until 1853 was labour differentiated between different types of criminals depending on their crime seriousness. Colonial powers also encouraged criminals to join the army instead of being imprisoned (as Britain did during the Second World War). Or, in peace times, banishment to inhabited colonies was a frequent solution that, while colonizing new territories, moved undesirable people away from the metropolis.

Australia received 800 British prisoners as first habitants, in a date remembered today as National Day. Along the next decades, thousands of convicts moved to populate penitentiary and forced labour centres in the colonies. France created labour colonies in its South American possessions at French Guyana, infamous because of the brutal treatment to prisoners until their closure in the mid-20th Century.

Many colonies were initially conceived with production centres, during the 19th and 20th Centuries they were common in authoritarian governments that cruelly exploited the prisoners, as in Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, China, Romania and North Vietnam. Also victorious powers of the Second World War used Germans as compulsory labour force for reconstructions.

The first Nazi concentration camps were built in Germany to accommodate political opponents of the regime. Since 1942, camps were created close to factories in order to provide labour force. IG Farben established a synthetic rubber factory in Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and other camps were situated near plane and rocket factories, and coal mines. Prisoners were frequently sent in mass to the gas chambers when it was necessary to renew labour force.

Soviet Union created a huge network of Gulags (at least 476) to serve as a destination for the victims of Stalin purges. They were mainly ethnic minorities and, after the Second World War, Germans and even liberated soldiers of the Red Army. The most infamous of these camps were built in Siberia north of the Arctic Circle, in Kolyma, Norilsk and Vorkuta. In total, about 18 million people were in this type of camps, of which more than half died. Gulags were one of the pillars of Soviet industrial development, as they were assigned tasks of natural resource exploitation and infrastructure building in remote areas of the country.

A lucrative business

The United States have started to privatise imprisonment services (Wackenhut Corrections, Correctional Services Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America), adducing that the costs of private administration are much lower than public one. This kind of prison-companies offers convicts working for much lower incomes than common citizens, as the light cost of maintenance is included. As a consequence, prisons can make very advantageous contracts with big corporations, for tasks of product assembling.