The Immigration Industrial Complex: A global perspective on ‘unfree labour’ in immigration detention

Labour within immigration detention is not a widely acknowledged phenomenon, yet thousands of hours of work are being undertaken in detention centres throughout the world. In 2014, for example, over 495,000 hours-worth of work were undertaken by detainees in immigration detention centres in the UK alone. In 2015, this rose to over 923,000 hours-worth of work, and in 2016 over 537,000 hours-worth of work were undertaken between January and July 2016 (FOI request).

Taking a global perspective on this type of work is important as common colonial histories and global transfers in capital help to make sense of why detention practices are growing in popularity, and why migrants from particular countries of origin continue to be subjected to exploitative and ‘unfree’ labour at the hands of state parties and private corporations. Global systemic compulsions and forms of coercion underpin detainees’ entrance into the labour market. Global structures maintain forms of exploitation, wherein migrants (predominantly from the global south) are imprisoned and exploited for their labour power. This is not a new phenomenon but rather part of a long historical narrative based around racialisation, exploitation and capital accumulation.

While the majority of immigration detention centres exist in the Global North, there are also numerous detention centres throughout the Global South making this a world-wide industry. In 2019, the Global Detention Project mapped the existence of 1935 centres, of which 1252 were in use. Redolent of the US ‘prison industrial complex’, the immigration detention estate can be conceptualized as an ‘immigration industrial complex’ comprising a system of mutually beneficial relations linking corporations, government and media to the incarceration industry. Use of the term ‘immigration industrial complex’ contradicts the assumption that detainee numbers increase as a result of rising migration. Instead, this term denotes that the construction of the detention estate and the drive to keep inmate numbers high is driven by racism and the pursuit of profit, rather than the ‘need’ to control immigration.

Immigration detention is not a criminal system but rather a form of administrative detention as individuals are supposedly detained in order to deter entry and manage migrants’ presence within the state. Though the effectiveness of detention as a form of deterrence has been widely discredited, immigration detention continues to grow in popularity and remains a multi-million-pound industry. Between 2007 and 2013, for example, the European Union (EU) spent four billion euros, or 60 percent of its total Home Affairs budget, on immigration control measures. Unsurprisingly, the running of many detention centres throughout the world is contracted out to private corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Wackenhut (now the Geo Group), G4S, Serco, and Management and Training Corporation (MTC), amongst others. As noted by Michael Flynn, two of the key leading countries in immigration detention, the UK and Australia, contract out nearly all of their detention estate to private corporations.

In the US, another of the world leaders in immigration detention, 62% of all immigration detention beds were operated by private for-profit corporations. This is striking as the USA operates the world’s largest immigration detention system. Flynn places the USA at the centre of the proliferation of immigration detention globally, noting that it has been instrumental in initiating policy innovation, imitation and implementation, which has led to the immigration industrial complex phenomenon. Unsurprisingly then, the privatisation of immigration detention has expanded to several other European countries including France, Austria and the Netherlands. The lesson to be learned here is that detention practices and policies developed in one country, can have a major impact on detention regimes in another. There are also major economic benefits for poorer countries in developing immigration detention estates to reduce the flow of populations into certain regions such as Europe, Australia or the USA.

Policy developments in Europe place pressure on EU border states to serve as ‘gatekeepers’ which in turn bolsters their detention practices. These border countries then diffuse detention pressures outwards to non-European states such as Libya. Consequently, the EU is complicit in growing global detention practices both directly by funding gatekeeper’s detention estates, and indirectly by hardening Europe’s own border policies leaving neighbouring countries with the task of accommodating irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Cost reduction is also a factor at play here as detaining persons abroad is often cheaper than detaining them in core countries in the Global North. Detention outside of Global North jurisdictions also relieves the normative pressure of international human rights obligations by diluting public scrutiny and accountability. Power relations are diffused in these arrangements where non-EU states attempt to set the conditions of migration. Indeed, in mid-2010 Muammar Gadaffi warned the EU that without Libya’s support “Europe might no longer be European and even black as there are millions who want to come in”.

In addition to state involvement in the proliferation of immigration detention, non-state actors also have a central role in facilitating immigration detention regimes. Private charities and humanitarian groups have obtained lucrative contracts to manage immigration detention facilities. For example, Barnardos in the UK, the Italian Red Cross, and the Salvation Army have all been paid to provide support services in detention centres.  The International Organisation for Migration (the IOM) has also helped to oversee the renovation of detention centres throughout the world, including Libya where the Global Detention Project have raised concerns related to “oversight, jurisdiction, and accountability, as well as the real possibility that any external support for detention will amount to support for criminal activities.”

A less studied aspect of the immigration industrial complex is that within many of these centres, labour is being extracted from detainees, either by force or consent under the governing rationale of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism views humans as economic actors and transforms every field of human activity into a market. Unlike liberalism, under neoliberalism the state does not withdraw, instead enhancing its activities in order to serve big business. Whilst it remains unclear exactly how many countries have co-opted immigration detainees into working in detention, the practice appears to be growing.

Labour in immigration detention

The United States first introduced ‘voluntary work programmes’ for immigration detainees in the 1950s in order to save on administrative expenses, a practice which continues today and has been adopted elsewhere. Accordingly, labour within immigration detention is not confined to the Global North which, generally, imposes organised forms of work where detainees are provided with timetables and job descriptions.

The types of work performed in immigration detention include the upkeep of detention centres and labour for the benefit of other external organisations. As Zatz writes, in the UK and the US detainees engage in ‘prison housework’ where a “a prison manages production and also consumes its output, as inmates contribute directly to prison operations by cooking meals, doing laundry, or cleaning the facilities” (Zatz). This enables the detention centres to displace staff who would normally be paid the national minimum wage and instead use detainees who are paid at a rate of £1.00 or $1.00 an hour. In contrast, in Denmark detainees are used to assemble products for sale outside of the detention centres at a rate equivalent to less than two euros per hour. Such jobs include ‘simple tasks’ such as placing stickers on San Pellegrino bottles, and even at one-point assembling penis enlargement gadgets.

In the Global South, immigration detainees are also put to work, often under perilous conditions. In Libya, for example, forced slavery and labour is rife and remains of “grave concern” to the UN. Article 6 of Libyan Law No 19 provides that “illegal migrants” will be jailed and condemned to forced labour, or face a fine of 1,000 LYD (the equivalent to 723 USD). Following their detention, the released detainees will then be expelled from the country. The Global Detention Project also reports that detainees in Libya are regularly contracted out as informal work gangs to private employers under forced labour conditions. This is facilitated by prison and detention centre guards who then return the detainees to detention once the employer no longer requires them. Whilst it may appear that European states such as the UK and Denmark have a more organised ‘humane’ approach to detainee labour, the EU has been instrumental in supporting Libya’s detention programme in order to stem the flow of refugees landing on European shores. This includes a commitment from the EU to provide millions in order to bolster Libya’s immigration detention estate and to equip maritime forces to intercept carrier boats.

Though the detainee population is varied, immigration detainees are ‘non-citizens’ of the State in which they are detained. This places them in a vulnerable position as the right to have rights rests upon inclusion, normally within a political community. Detainees’ status as non-citizens thus has wider implications for their liberty rights as well as social rights, including access to social security and the right to work. As a result, and despite multiple legal challenges from detainees in both the UK and US, immigration detainees are not afforded ‘employee’ or ‘worker’ status and the panoply of protections that go with these statuses. In the US for example detainees are not considered ‘employees’ as the relationship is supposedly ‘rehabilitative’ and based on the upkeep of detention centres rather than profit.

It is worth pointing out here that the majority of global data indicates that immigration detainees are paid a small fraction of the wages that would be paid to citizen labourers. In the UK for example, detainees are paid £1.00 an hour as opposed to the National Minimum Wage on the grounds that granting this “would not be viable financially, nor reflect the true economic value of the work likely to be carried out.” Interestingly then, this work, like much of the work considered to be ‘women’s work’, is categorised as non-productive – erasing its value in capitalist terms. Yet this overlooks the fact that the capitalist system is a patriarchal and racialized project built on the erasure of ‘non-productive’ labour – mainly provided by women, slaves and workers from the colonies.

Ironically, as a result of paying detainees reduced wages, the private corporations running the detention estates and utilising cheap detainee labour stand to save millions in costs.  Though such claims continue to be denied by the UK Government, the campaign group Corporate Watch suggests that companies such as GEO could be saving £1.5 million annually by paying detainees £1 per hour to undertake jobs that would otherwise be performed by workers entitled to the national minimum wage. Indeed, this chimes with the claims made elsewhere in this issue of Futures of Work by ‘John’, a former immigration detainee, who worked as a cleaner at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). ‘John’ states that he never once saw an external cleaner working during his time at Brook House meaning detainees absorb the costs of running the detention estate.  How then should we best conceptualise the work of immigration detainees?

In a recent paper, myself and Lucy Mayblin argued that detainees in the UK should be considered employees and given access to employment rights as they fulfil the legal status tests set out in the Employment Rights Act 1996. This position is supported by the pieces written by ‘John’ and Philip Armitage in this issue of Futures of Work. Both demand that detainees be paid the National Minimum Wage. An increase in wage rates would not negate the coercive nature of labour within immigration detention. However it would reduce the extent to which detainees are exploited, as they would retain more of the profit they produce. For detainees in gatekeeper countries such as Libya where inmates are subjected to forced labour conditions, labour rights would likely be transformative. However, affording immigration detainees labour rights would not render these labour regimes regime non-exploitative or non-coercive. This is because a number of structural factors, such as the socio-economic position of detainees, their immigration status, and their deportability compel them to sell their labour power.

Unfree Labour and indicators of unfreedom

Unlike forced labour or modern slavery, ‘unfree labour’ is not a legal concept, but offers an additional way of criticising and conceptualising consent and the coercive circumstances, structures and social relations that compel individuals into performing exploitative work.

An unfree labour perspective moves away from the liberal ‘consent’ based approach which arguably fails to capture many of the coercive pressures faced by those working within immigration detention. The liberal approach is adopted within many international legal instruments designed to counteract and address instances of forced labour. For example, Article 2(1) of the ILO Forced Labour Convention 1930 identifies forced labour as exacted under the menace of penalty and for which persons have not offered themselves voluntarily. Article 2(2) provides for certain exceptions to the rule, such as the work of convicted prisoners. The ILO Forced Labour Convention also excludes economic considerations (such as destitution) when assessing the coercive factors leading to forced labour relations. From the liberal viewpoint, labour that is compelled by economic reasons but subject to abysmal pay or conditions is non-exploitative and non-coerced. Adopting a broader unfree labour perspective recognises that issues are often nuanced and constructed narrowly in order to suit capitalist agendas. The idea of a continuum of ‘unfree’ labour, with certain factors such as slavery and servitude at the extreme end of the continuum highlights how ‘free labour’ remains a problematic concept, camouflaging the fact that all wage labour is subject to some level of compulsion within a capitalist system.

As noted by Genevieve LeBaron, in order to assess the forms of coercion that underpin detainees’ entrance into the labour market, we must acknowledge that global processes shape unfree labour relations at different scales and levels of governance. This requires us to look first at the shifting relations of production and reproduction rendering global transformations in land ownership central to this assessment. 

Primitive accumulation

David Harvey defines primitive accumulation as entailing “the taking and enclosing of land and the expulsion of resident populations to create a landless proletariat which was then released into the privatised mainstream of capital accumulation.” Colonial enterprise and the construction of race is central to this analysis. Whilst it is unclear exactly where the labouring detainee population comes from, it remains safe to say that the majority of immigration detainees are non-white persons, often men, originating from the Global South.  The most common category of detainee in the UK are asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers. In 2017, the top global refugee sending countries were Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan and Somalia – all of whom were directly occupied or colonised by the British alongside other European countries such as France and Italy. Accordingly, we can assume that many detainee labourers come from formerly colonised states. Yet, even where detainees are not connected to colonial histories, as acknowledged by Paul Gilroy, they may nevertheless be caught up in a pattern of hostility as a consequence of its aftermath.

Whilst colonisation might seem disjointed from the domain of the detention centre, it remains important as colonial enterprise aided the industrial development of Europe which had a significant impact on the environment and the distribution of global wealth. Occupation and colonisation also led to the dispossession of indigenous land rights, and economic and political instability compelled many to leave their countries of origin in search of security. Ideas of human hierarchy based on race and ‘civilisation’ were also central to the colonial project and, arguably, remain influential in the creation of migration policy today– including that of immigration detention and carceral labour practices. The conditions of the labour process itself, such as the behaviour of guards, could also be affected by entrenched ideas of human hierarchy and dehumanisation which are the outcome of broader historical phenomena. All of these factors contribute to detainees’ placement within the immigration industrial complex and their ‘voluntariness’ or compulsion to undertake work within detention.

Social Reproduction

Another area for consideration when looking at entry into the detention estate is social reproduction. From a historical perspective, social reproduction was and is one of the key drivers in migratory movements.

The historical and modern movement of women from the Global North transferring their labour from the home to the workplace has resulted in a sharp decline in pregnancies and household sizes. In response, as Susan Ferguson and David McNally argue, states began advancing immigration policies that reflected capitals need for an army of reserve labour power. Following World War II, these patterns were profoundly racialised, with migration mapping on to earlier paths of colonisation. This involved, for instance, Algerians working in France, Indonesians in the Netherlands, Indians in Britain and Mexicans in the US.

Though much of this migration fulfils a labour gap in the Global North, social reproduction within workers’ countries of origin also stimulates their own migratory movements. The need to send home family remittances in order to fulfil basic needs is a major area for consideration. This compels migratory movements which can place individuals at the mercy of the immigration industrial complex. It can also coerce individuals into agreeing to work within detention – where there are no other options for earning an income. Indeed, detainees in the UK context cite the need to send money home to care for their children as a driving factor in their agreement to work within detention.


The neo-liberal redistribution of wealth from poor to rich via the redesign of labour, social welfare, trade and migration policy is also relevant under this assessment. Such policies seek to privilege the security of capital over the majority of the world’s population. Migration controls are central to this as they seek to stem the flow of migrants from poorer countries into wealthier countries in the Global North.

Though the continuation of capital accumulation in the Global North remains reliant on foreign labourers from the Global South, much migrant labour still arrives in the form of undocumented workers who lack access to social and political rights. Yet even where individuals enter the Global North legally via visa regimes, there remain strict regulations on their rights with repercussions in terms of status and precarity. These factors have a significant impact upon the compulsion to enter labour within immigration detention. For example, detainees are normally poor and often restricted from claiming welfare or working rights on the outside.

If we consider prison labour and thus detainee labour as a means of instilling market and social discipline, then this form of work also indoctrinates detainees into accepting precarity in the form of low wages, pushing them towards more exploitative forms of working should they be released. It also has implications for the wider workforce as it supresses wages and labour conditions downwards where corporations can turn to use of cheap detainee labour.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this labour is that it is often organised or authorised by the state and regularly results in profit for private corporations. Immigration law is central to situating detainees within the realm of the detention centre, but there are also many other legal structures that result in detainees agreeing to work, including intimate connections between labour market policies, welfare policies and the criminal law. Arguably, the proliferation in detainee labour is encouraged by the fact that the global detention estate is run by a select number of multi-national corporations with lobbying power who benefit from this work. The immigration detention and labour regimes we see in place today signify law’s response to capital’s demands.

In conclusion

Taking into account the existing coercive structures surrounding the realm of the detention estate, this labour should be considered ‘unfree’. Of course, one of the most obvious solutions to ameliorating some of these issues would be a no borders approach, or the abolition of immigration detention in its entirety. However, given the capital interests involved in the growth of the world’s immigration detention estate, these options look unlikely. In the meantime, positive changes to labour practices and the recognition of employee status and labour rights would reduce the levels of exploitation being experienced by detainees throughout the globe. The ability to collectivise would also increase the bargaining power of the detainee population. But these solutions remain a sticking plaster for a much more systemic issue – the capitalist exploitation and expropriation of migrants from Global South countries seeking access to the Global North.

Katie Bales is Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol and an editor of Futures of Work

Image credit: DIAC images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)