Orange is the New Black: On Work and Fair Labour Practices

“Equal Pay Day” by Michael Panse on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

I really enjoy the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. We just finished watching the most recent season, and I thought it was just as good as the previous two. It’s intelligent and well-written, funny and poignant. Primarily, I find it refreshing to watch a popular mainstream TV show focused on women, their concerns and relationships. It also has a diversity of representations–different ages, sizes, body shapes, races, ethnic backgrounds, gender identities. In addition to the focus on women’s stories, I also appreciate the focus on work and fair labour practices. It’s really unusual to see this addressed in mainstream American or Canadian popular culture. But Orange is the New Black frequently brings up these issues, and in Season 3, they came to a head.

[Spoiler alert! If you haven’t watched Season 3 of the show and want to keep yourself spoiler-free, don’t read the rest of the post.]

Labour practices are examined through three storylines in Season 3 of OITNB:

1) Exploitation of prisoner labour by the justice system working hand in hand with a multinational corporation: Now that Litchfield Prison is owned and operated by a private contractor, it has partnered with a multinational lingerie manufacturer, Whispers. The prisoners at Litchfield now sew lingerie for, essentially, slave wages. The lingerie will be sold at exorbitant prices so Whispers’ shareholders can make handsome profits.

2) The guards’ working conditions: When the prison was run by the Department of Justice, the guards had reasonable working conditions, a modicum of job security, and reasonably good benefits. All this has disappeared with the privatization of the prison. The company that took over Litchfield is all about maximizing profits, and if that means laying off all the experienced guards or reducing their hours, and hiring untrained guards who will work for less money, then so be it. OITNB has illustrated the detrimental effects of privatization on the guards (guards now have to work multiple jobs to support their families; they have lost the health and other benefits they relied on; the new guards don’t know what they’re doing and put themselves in jeopardy sometimes), the prisoners (the new, untrained guards regularly put the prisoners in jeopardy, either on purpose or by accident; the lack of screening means prisoners are vulnerable to assault), and society (lack of training means prisoners are able to escape the facility).

3) Piper’s exploitation of her fellow prisoners: When Piper realizes she can use scrap material to make extra pairs of underwear, she puts together a scheme to sell “prisoner-worn underwear” to fetishists via the internet. Although her scheme relies on a labour force–she can’t do this all herself–she is unwilling to share her profits with anything resembling fairness. When her labour force realizes how Piper is exploiting them, they organize and demand to negotiate better wages. Realizing the bind she’s in, Piper agrees to negotiate–and then fires the woman who spoke up for the group and did the negotiating, effectively silencing the other women from attempting future negotiations.

While I didn’t feel Season 3 was perfect, I appreciated the direction the creators decided to take the series. I’m looking forward to seeing some follow-up on the threads left hanging at the end of the season finale.

2 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black: On Work and Fair Labour Practices

  1. Katherine Wikoff says:

    I have not seen this show, but it sounds really good. The public vs private debate is a complex discussion our society needs to have. I’m not sure either is a surefire safeguard against exploitation, human nature being what it is, of course.

  2. mworfolk says:

    I’ve really enjoyed the show! I first heard about it when the author was featured on the Moth podcast, telling a story about her time in prison (it’s based on her true experiences)–they ended by saying she had a memoir published and Netflix would be adapting a show based on the memoir.

    It’s true, things definitely aren’t perfect when the prison is run by the state either, but it is interesting to see just how quickly they get worse when the private company takes over. It is especially interesting that it’s based on the author’s experience too–although of course, there is some blurring of fact and fiction when it comes to creative non-fiction/memoir….

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