There is an article going around about Chinese prisoners working as World of Warcraft gold farmers. It has the hallmarks of a hot Twitter link: World of Warcraft, new virtual economies, China, and social outrage. But surprise of surprises, this retweet fever is… well, xenophobic. As it turns out, when viewed from a perspective of profit-taking off the backs of the workers, US prison labor is far more exploitative.
First of all, the claim in the Guardian piece is that the guards make £470-570 a day off the mining. I’m not sure if this is supposedly per prisoner, or for all the prisoners, but either way, it appears to be a disingenuous way of presenting the figure. This article claims that the average monthly wages of a “free” gold farmer are about 145 USD a month, working 12 hours shifts, or 40 cents an hour. This source claims the average Chinese gold farmer makes 0.30 USD an hour, while management makes about $1 an hour gross off that worker’s labor. So, with 300 prisoners (as cited in the Guardian article) working 12 hour shifts, we could imagine the prison bosses are pulling in $3600 a day gross if they are the top of the management structure, and $1080 per day if they are merely reselling the prisoners’ labor. Either way, we see the £470-570 sum is closer to the combined profitability of all the prisoners, (subtracting subscription and computer costs), and not the work done by the individual prisoner.
But even now that we’ve straightened that out, how much money is that, really? Gold farming only exists because there are economies in the world in which 30 cents an hour is a wage that someone is willing to work for. It is widespread in China, because of the size of the population and what that money will buy. In the United States, even working as a illegal farm laborer for half minimum wage is more than ten times that rate.
But don’t trust me: let’s look at some statistics. Federal minimum wage (the absolute minimum, as some states mandate a higher wage) is $7.25 an hour. The lowest minimum wage in China (China’s minimum wage is set regionally, not nationally) works out to 33 cents an hour, figured with 12-hour days. So gold farming in China is actually almost as lucrative for a worker as a minimum wage job, whereas in the US, it doesn’t even come close. This is why the Chinese bother to do it, whereas in the US, we hope for jobs in food service. Keeping in mind, of course, that “minimum wage” is an abstract figure in itself.
As it turns out, the US has the highest prison population per capita, at 756 prisoners per 100,000 people. We also have a tried and true prisoner labor economy. For example, in Arizona prisoners work as farm laborers, earning $2 an hour, 30% of which goes back to the prison for “room and board”. That is pretty good pay, considering that prisoners are also used as “out-sourced” call center workers, for an average of only 92 cents an hour.
Now, there are two ways to look at this.
One: the Chinese gold farmers are probably (the article is not clear) paid NOTHING for their farming. The prison bosses pocket 100% of the gross after equipment, with zero labor costs. The workers are making 0% on their labor, and 100% of what would be their minimum wage is being stolen from them on account of their incarceration. Whereas, US prisoners keep at worst (figuring 92 cents an hour) 12.6% of what would be their minimum wage, 87.4% of their due as workers being taken from them on account of their incarceration. In other words, it is better to earn something rather than nothing, and the American prisoners are doing better than the Chinese.
On the other hand…
Two: The surplus value is what matters. It is not so much the percentage that those workers could have earned at a “real” job farming, gold farming, or whatever. It is the work that their bosses are getting out of them, and in this case, the money they save by using prisoners. It is the comparison between the money the bosses might have spent to pay free workers, versus money that those bosses save at the expense of their workers’ incarceration. In this case, per working hour, the Chinese prison bosses are earning $1 off each worker per hour, because this is the largest price they can get from the farmed gold, even when paying their workers absolutely nothing. While the American boss who out-sources prison labor is earning a full $5.25 extra per working hour in pure profit by skirting minimum wage requirements. That is on top of the profit that boss would already collect, from phone orders of products, or harvested produce. In avoiding the necessity to pay workers a minimum wage, US bosses pocket 525% more surplus value per prison-work-hour than their Chinese colleagues with the gold farming scheme. The Chinese prisoner may get the shaft when it comes to being paid. But as far as saving money on labor, the US prison boss is doing much better than the Chinese prison boss.
While our first instinct might be to compare the two instances as in approach One, it is crucial that we compare them by approach Two. A prisoner is a prisoner, but the value of that prisoner to the economic system of industrialized prison labor, shows exactly what stake that system has in keeping that laborer a prisoner. A US worker in prison is worth 525% more to the economy than a Chinese worker farming gold in prison. The Chinese prison bosses would make a little less if they couldn’t steal free labor from their prisoners. But that is small potatoes, compared to what US corporations make off their prisoners. My instinct is that the Chinese gold farming bosses are working on their own, just trying to extort a little bit of labor from their charges (the prisoners also officially work make products for export, which I expect are far more lucrative). To compare gold farming, a little bit of exploitative pocket money gathering, to the worldwide system of prison labor, is merely to make an internet-ready article, and not to even begin to comprehend the injustice done to incarcerated workers by surplus-value economies.
The real story, therefore, is not that it is so crazy that in a Chinese prison, prisoners are made to do some meaningless task for their bosses’ benefit. When measuring the profitability of the prison-industrial complex within the working economy, the US is still #1, baby.
Oh, and the story is also that we love to imagine China is the great economic Satan. But the US has been outsourcing exploitation since there was a trade deficit, and extracting surplus value from workers since time immemorial, so don’t think we’ve forgotten how to fuck over the lower classes.