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Is Convict Labor Socially Responsible?

Friday, February 13th, 2009

A while ago, Starbucks got caught using convict (prison) labor to pack its gift boxes. This was through a contract packager known to most of us in the coffee world.  At this point I don't know if they are still doing it, as it is incredibly difficult to get a straight answer out of most large corporations regarding how their business practices really operate.  But the question remains, is it ever apopropriate for companies claiming the heights of social responsibility to utilze prison labor?

The pro's for working with the cons are that it helps rehabilitate the inmates and allows them meaningful work and income.  If this were true, it would be a good argument.  On the other hand,  is packing a box with two pounds of ridiculously overpriced coffee or chocolates a serious skill-building exercise? Could that be a resume-builder that could lead to a job at Starbucks or anywhere else?

Similarly, convicts in prison do not make minimum wage, to my knowledge, so I am not sure there is much of a serious argument that prison labor is a real income generator.  Even if it does put some money into inmate's pockets, is this just an excuse by companies to avoid paying meaningful wages to workers who are not incarcerated?  It seems like a real money saver for the companies that utilize the prisoners as cheap laborers.

So here we are at Valentines Day. Does the mantle of social responsibility include using prison labor? Do you know if the chocolate gift box you bought for your sweetie was put together in a way that is inconsistent with your values?  Just asking.