by Rachel Knaebel
When Oliver Rast, together with a fellow prisoner, created the prison workers’ organisation GG-BO (Gefangener Gewerkschaft-Bundesweite Organisation ˗ Prisoners’ Union- National Organisation) in May 2014, he did not expect it to grow so quickly.
Less than a year later, it has 400 members. Since completing his three-year sentence in September 2014, Oliver Rats has remained involved, from the outside.
“When I arrived in prison, I realised that the inmates were not organised collectively. I had already been involved in workers’ organisations before. So the aim was to introduce this grass roots trade unionism in prison.”
Created in a Berlin prison, the organisation quickly spread throughout the country. Today it has members in some 40 German prisons, in legal terms as an unregistered association, which is the current status of German trade union organisations.
Germany has a prison population of 66.000 ˗ including those on remand. The great majority of them work.
In most German states (Länder), work is compulsory in prison. Only four states have removed this obligation in recent years.
It is not the case in Berlin, where nearly three quarters of detainees work, according to information obtained by Equal Times from the Ministry of Justice in the Berlin state.
Their salary, set by law, ranges from 8 to 15 euros a day, or between 1.15 and 2.15 euros an hour. It is calculated on the basis of qualifications and seniority.
The prisons pay unemployment insurance on these salaries and “pay health care costs” adds the Ministry’s spokesperson, Claudia Engfeld.
”For those serving long sentences, this lack of pension contributions is a guarantee of poverty in old age” deplores Oliver Rast.
His organisation is also demanding that the new minimum wage of 8.50 euros an hour, gross, that came into force in Germany on 1 January 2015, also be applied in prisons.
“The question of the minimum was debated at length, but work in prison was completely left out of those debates. We want to put the tens of thousands of prison workers back into the discussion.”
More broadly, the GG-BO is demanding equal status for prison workers with that of free workers in an open environment.
First contacts with trade unions on the outside
Their demands have little chance of being met for the time being. Because the way the trade union sees things is clearly not shared by the authorities.
“The work done by prisoners cannot be compared to working conditions outside prison” says Engfeld.
She continues: “The work that prisoners do is intended to re-socialise them and give them skills. For many of them, their training has been very patchy, so working in prison gives them a better chance of getting back into the labour market.”
Oliver Rast, a bookseller by training, works at making office supplies in prison for the regional administration. Others make furniture, for example, or spare parts for industry.
Some grass roots trade union groups, such as the unemployed workers’ committee of the service workers’ confederation ver.di and the students group from the GEW education workers’ union, have expressed their solidarity.
“We also met the vice-president of the Berlin branch of the service union, in December” says Oliver Rast.
“There will be other meetings. But of course there are reservations and fears.”
In the meantime, the number of prisoners joining the organisation continues to rise.