German inmates set up first union to push for better pay

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 6:27am

A group of inmates at a prison in Berlin have set up the world's first union for prisoners to campaign for a minimum wage and a pension scheme.

Inmates at Berlin Tegel jail work regular shifts in kitchens and workshops, which the union says makes them "de facto employees, just like their colleagues outside the prison gates".

"Prisoners have never had a lobby working for them. With the prisoners' union we've decided to create one ourselves," spokesman Oliver Rast said.

In Germany, prisoners are excluded from pension schemes and the minimum wage, which in Germany's case is planned to come into effect next year at €8.50 (HK$90) an hour. Inmates at Berlin Tegel earn between €9 and €15 a day, depending on their qualifications.

The Berlin union, which is registered as an association without legal status and claims to have collected numerous signatures within the prison, said the lack of pension schemes meant many elderly inmates were released straight into poverty.

While there have been previous attempts to set up union-like structures within prison walls, they have usually ceased to exist once individual inmates were released. In Britain, an organisation called Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners was set up in the early 1970s but eventually faded away.

Last week Rast's cell was searched by prison staff, who reportedly confiscated documents relating to the foundation of the union. Rast was jailed in 2009 for his involvement in the left-wing organisation that committed a series of arson attacks on government buildings between 2001 and 2009.

Lawyer Sven Lindemann described the cell search as an attempt to discipline and intimidate his client.

Berlin Tegel jail denied it was trying to prevent the creation of a union and said the union founders had failed to alert prison authorities that it was collecting signatures.

Frances Crook, chief executive of Britain's Howard League for Penal Reform, praised the Berlin initiative: "We want prisoners to develop civic responsibilities, and learning that work pays is a key stepping stone towards that goal. Why shouldn't they form a union to help them on that path?"