Two companies have recruited prisoners to work on a salt mine in central Australia after the companies failed to find employees.
Prisoners are being roped in and trained up for a potash project near Curtin Springs, around 250 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs.
The project is a joint venture between Rum Jungle Resources and Reward Minerals, the ABC reports.
The Northern Territory government is sending the prisoners to the salt mine. The move is under the Country Liberals Government’s “Sentenced to a Job” scheme, which it introduced in Territory jails recently.
Under the scheme, prisoners can work on private and public ventures.
Northern Territory Correctional Services Minister John Elferink said the company is paying award wages. The wages will cover things such as pay for security guards.
He also said the prisoners will be covered by workers’ compensation insurance.
“I expect prisoners in the Northern Territory corrections system to work,” he said.
“If they are particularly good at what they do, then we reward them with full-time work outside the prisons.
“So if they work inside the prison, they will ultimately work outside the prison."
Five per cent of the prisoners’ wages goes towards a victims’ assistance fund, while $125 of their wage will go towards their board expenses in jail.
They will get $60 a week in their pocket while the remaining wage will go towards a trust fund. This will be paid to them whole when they come out of prison.
But not everyone is happy with the program. The Northern Territory section of the United Voice union launched a scathing attack against the award wages for prisoners to work at the salt mine, saying it is like slave labour, the ABC reported.
"We've had some miners in those different areas we represent coming forward, and they're a bit worried because of these large mining companies who actually quite happily use undercutting of labour and undercutting of wages to try and maximise their profits while driving down the different areas," Matthew Gardiner from United Voice said.
"If anyone's working in this sector, regardless of where they come from or what they've done, they should be paid at market rate.
"Currently the award rate for the area is around $16 an hour, whereas someone who works off the award rate would be working about $35 an hour," he said.
Some prisoners were hired at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia in 2012 after finishing their sentence after they were trained to work on the mine while they were in jail.
BHP Billiton teamed up with the South Australian Department of Correctional Services in 2009 to have low security prisoners from Port Augusta Prison work at its Olympic Dam uranium mine.
It was run under the Mobile Outback Work Camp.