Putting prisoners to work – by Ali Wahab

Express Tribune
Published: January 31, 2011

Pakistan has a large number of offenders in jails who can be put to good use. DESIGN: S.JAMAL
When I was in university nearly a decade ago, we could use China in a SWOT analysis in any way we felt like. It was a Strength and a Weakness as well as an Opportunity and Threat. China easily allowed for adding one point in our analysis.
The way China has grown in the last one and half decade, it has left the entire world in awe. The strategy for China has been multi-pronged yet simple.
Amongst many strategies, it has used its vast population which translates into a large pool of skilled and unskilled workers to provide an important element of production: cheap labour.
Because of cheap labour, industries have been relocated to China and at the same time, China has used its capability to move its labour in the developing world to win development contracts. With the growth in China, workers have begun commanding higher wages causing question marks on the concept of cheap labour.
Recently, it has come to light that China is using convicts in overseas infrastructure projects like construction of highways and dams. Whether human rights activists like it or not, it is a novel way of keeping costs low and also reducing overcrowding at their prisons. The state of China has a one track in mind – progress and that track is working.
Pakistan has to come up with similar out of the box thinking if we want to get out of our economic difficulties. Though complete data is not available for the entire country, Punjab and Sindh have a total of 70,233 prisoners. The situation in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan is not clear but we can assume that between 15,000 to 20,000 would be imprisoned in the two provinces.
How many of them are convicted and how many are under trial is a separate discussion.
The fact remains that our prisons are overcrowded and the state has to spend a lot for maintaining these facilities as well as providing basic amenities to the inmates.
Pakistani authorities should explore ways of using this potential pool of mainly unskilled but cheap labour. Of course not all of the prisoners can be used for labour, but a certain portion can for sure be utilised.
Let’s assume that the number is between 5,000 to 10,000 inmates convicted for terms of more than five years and, of course, they are not terrorists and hardened criminals. The state can utilise them in infrastructure construction projects.
These prisoners can be paid a slightly lower wages which can be reimbursed to them when they are released.
At the same time, their hard work can be rewarded through remissions in jail terms while at the same time they are being trained to be absorbed by the job market upon their release.
If the state is not willing to take this initiative, then some industrial or construction group should be permitted to use this potential pool of labour under various conditions and supervisions of the state.
This way cheap labour can help in the development of our country, while unemployed and socially-unacceptable people can get training and jobs.
The quantitative impact of such an initiative is not known, however, it is more probable that it will have a favourable impact on our society.
Detractors of such a proposal and readers will question the logic behind usage of labour from prisons in any project. One has to weigh the pros and cons of using every possible resource. In my personal opinion, we must explore all possible options available at our disposal.
The writer is an investment banker based in Sharjah.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st,  2011.