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Cheap Mexican Prison Labor Exploited by U.S. Firms

Even with U.S. laws prohibiting the importation of commodities produced with prison labor, prison officials in northern Mexico report that prisoners there are making furniture headed for Texas. Moreover, they're pursuing more contracts with American companies to produce a variety of goods, even offering to label the products in such a way that their origin is hidden. "Our products don't say they are made in prison," said Manuel del Riego, the Tamaulipas state prison director. "They put a fancy tag on them and say they are made in a faraway country."

Prison factories are seen by some Mexican authorities as a way to counter the outflow of foreign-owned business from within Mexico's borders to even cheaper labor in Asia. Prison labor, however, faces global criticism. The importation of prison made goods is banned by many countries including the U.S. on the basis it siphons jobs from the public sector, weakens unions, and creates a fertile breeding ground for human rights abuses.

Even so, one U.S. businessman, Clint Hough of Austin, Texas has been purchasing prison-made furniture for over a year, says del Riego. Asked during an interview at the prison whether or not he was transporting furniture to the U.S., Hough replied, "That I would really rather not discuss because I'm afraid U.S. Customs would ruin it." Hough went on to say that U.S. Customs can be narrow-minded "So it's really important that this is not reported."

Prisoners at the Ciudad Victoria prison said they manufactured 60 chairs and 3 dining room sets for a Corpus Christi barbecue chain under contract with Hough. Prisoner Serafin Hernandez Jr., who is in charge of the manufacturing, said "[Hough] calls me each week and asks how things are going or tells me, `I need two more chairs, a bedroom set,' and we get everything ready for when his trailer comes."

According to del Riego, 150 foreign-owned companies have shown interest in using convict-labor at Tamaulipas' 11 prisons to produce goods. Cheap labor of about 45 pesos ($4.50) a day and savings in worker benefits such as retirement and health insurance makes Mexican prison labor attractive. These are the same things that attract companies to U.S. prison labor.

Paula Keicer of the U.S. Customs Service in Washington D.C. says that the importation of goods made with prison labor are prohibited by U.S. law "no matter what the circumstances." Ironically, the U.S. has no qualms about exporting its own prison made goods.

Source: The Associated Press

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