Big Story 10

Factbox: Ten facts on prison labor worldwide

(Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An estimated 11 million people are imprisoned worldwide, many of them put to work in schemes that experts say run from exploitation to redemption.

Here are 10 facts about prison labor around the world.

1. Prisoners have been put to work for centuries, be it dredging waterways in 18th century England, making arms in Soviet gulags or forced into countless mining and manufacturing schemes that still operate today.

2. United Nations guidelines on how to treat inmates, known as “The Nelson Mandela Rules”, say prisoners should not be held in “slavery” and deserve a fair wage and decent work conditions.

3. Some 560,000 prisoners were victims of forced labor to the benefit of private individuals or organizations in 2016, according to anti-slavery group Alliance 8.7.

4. The United States and China have the world’s largest prison populations - estimated at 2.1 million and 1.65 million respectively - housing some of the biggest jail labor systems.

5. China runs a network of prison facilities that use forced labor to produce goods for export - ranging from Christmas decorations to footwear - according to a U.S. government report.

6. U.S. inmates are often paid less than $1 an hour for work, be it making clothes or fighting fires. Prisoners staged a strike in 2018 demanding the minimum wage and better conditions.

7. In North Korea, where an estimated 200,000 people are held in prison camps, inmates have been ordered to dig their own graves, according to rights organization Amnesty International.

8. Major brands to use prison labor include IBM, department store J.C. Penney and lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret.

9. Some firms, such as jeans maker Prison Blues and Danish fashion brand Carcel, have based their brand on jail labor, though the practice is controversial given inmates’ low pay.

10. Innovative projects include British initiatives to train inmates as chefs and a scheme in Ethiopia helping inmates form independent cooperatives offering work even after release.

Sources: World Prison Population List, The Howard League for Penal Reform, United Nations, Alliance 8.7, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Unicor, Reuters, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, National Institute of Justice, Prison Blues, Carcel, The Clink Charity, International Labour Organization.

Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit