ASPI’s forced labour links

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute—the think tank which reports extensively on China human rights—is being funded by corporations which have used forced prison labour
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has received millions of dollars in payments from foreign governments and companies. A significant proportion of that money has come from corporations directly profiting from forced prison labour.

At least eleven financial backers of ASPI have either directly or indirectly been involved in prisons and the use of prison labour and/or implicated in human trafficking.     
Reports have found that four of ASPI’s major long-term financial backers—BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon—have relied upon prison labour to build components used in their military hardware.
US federal convict labour is not voluntary, inmates are compelled to work on factory production lines. A US Federal Government report on prison labour states “all able-bodied sentenced prisoners” are required to work.
Weapons makers relying on prison labour have in turn paid ASPI which produces regular reports promoting China as a major security threat, whilst successfully advocating the Australian government purchases billions of dollars in hardware from its sponsors.

Despite its claims of producing independent research, ASPI is a Commonwealth-owned company, which has never publicly disclosed the full extent of millions of dollars in payments from the Defence Department, foreign governments and weapons manufacturers.

While its anti-China propaganda has found a willing audience in small sections of the media, ASPI has been condemned by a growing band of former foreign ministers, diplomats, defence personnel, Commonwealth public service chiefs and senior media commentators. 

Sources: ASPI Annual Reports 2001-2019, ASPI Website, US Bureau of Prisons, UNICOR, United States Department of Justice, Human Rights Watch, Wired, Reuters, The Guardian, Business Insider, Harvard Prison Divest Campaign,, Centre for Research on Globalization, “Prison Industry: Mapping private sector players” (Worth Rise, April 2020), APAC News

Patriot shames
ASPI sponsors, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, directly benefit from prison labour which produces electronic components for the Patriot surface-to-air missile.
Costing around $US5 million per missile, more than 10,000 Patriots have been produced with Raytheon reporting the missiles have been supplied to 16 US allies.
Prisoners make parts for the missiles for as little as 23 cents per hour. The factories’ operator discloses on its website that prison authorities can withhold some, or even all, of those wages from prisoners in order to pay fines and other debts.

Numerous reports state Lockheed Martin uses prison labour components. Independent news website Wired quotes a former civilian employee of prison labour operator UNICOR, as saying, “We make wiring harnesses for the military, this being one of them – the [Lockheed Martin assembled] Patriot missile.”

Since it was first revealed a decade ago these defence contractors were using prison labour Raytheon shares have risen by 430% and Lockheed Martin stock has advanced by 500%. Over that time their prison workers have not received a single pay rise.

F-15 & F-16 jet fighters
Boeing gave cash to ASPI for a decade between 2008 and 2018, it jointly manufactures the F-15 jet fighter which uses components made by forced prison labour.
The Lockheed Martin F-16 jet fighters, jointly made by General Dynamics use similar prison labour components, sourced from the same company UNICOR.
Lockheed Martin is one of ASPI’s most loyal supporters having provided cash sponsorship to the think tank continually for the past 16 years.
Though ASPI has never disclosed the dollar amounts paid by all of its individual sponsors it was revealed through Senate Estimates that Lockheed Martin paid it $135,909 in 2018-19.
In 2019 Lockheed Martin commenced negotiations which saw the Australian government purchase $800 million of missiles from the US weapons giant.

Tanks and £1 detainee labour
BAE Systems, which paid money to ASPI between 2014 and 2019 also has connections to forced prison labour. UNICOR, which controls prison labour across 110 factories housed in federal penitentiaries, supplies advanced electro-optical equipment for the BAE Systems Bradley Fighting Vehicle, also known as the Bradley tank.

UK multinational Serco Group, which operates immigration detention centres in Australia, paid ASPI sponsorship dollars for eight years between 2007 and 2015.
During the life of that sponsorship, an investigation revealed that Serco had replaced paid employees with detainees in two of its immigration detention centres in the UK. Those detainees were being paid as little as £1 per hour.

Independent British NGO, Corporate Watch has published dozens of reports highlighting questionable practices by the company.   
A 23 cents per hour workforce
US government owned UNICOR has 110 factories in at least 65 Federal prisons across the United States. Inmates manufacture a wide array of products for both civilian and military applications, with 16 of its prison factories specializing in the manufacture of electronics.

The company also supplies the US Military, whose government gives both direct and indirect financial support to ASPI. Prison workers supply body armour and, according to one report, all US military combat helmets. It also reportedly supplied the US with three-quarters of all uniforms used during the Iraq War.  

Prisoners without a high school diploma can only make 23 cents (US) per hour, whilst high school graduates can make up to $US1.15 per hour.
However, a significant proportion of the money they “earn” is withheld in order to pay court-imposed fines or financial restitution associated with their incarceration.
Federal convicts are amongst the highest paid in the US prison system, the national average wage of US prison workers is just 86 cents per day. In five states—Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida—prisoners are required to work without pay.

In a number of states prisoners who refuse to work are put in solitary confinement. This practice also extends to immigration detention centres with a report in 2018 of a Bangladeshi detainee being placed in solitary confinement over the refusal to participate in a forced work program.

Gulf state ties
Aside from the Gulf state’s well-reported use of ASPI sponsor-made weapons in the war in Yemen, in 2017-18 ASPI took sponsorship money from the United Arab Emirates.
Despite being one of the world’s richest nations Human Rights Watch reports the UAE has an appalling record in human trafficking and forced labour of domestic and construction workers.
In March 2020, the US State Department—which last year gave ASPI $1.37 million—released a report listing “significant human rights” violations including torture and accusations of war crimes committed by UAE-backed security forces in Yemen.

Human Trafficking and Bribery
For at least five years Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), a military focussed engineering company, was a major financial backer of ASPI’s annual conference.
In 2008 a human trafficking lawsuit was filed in the United States against, then ASPI financial supporter, KBR in connection to its work for the US military during the Iraq War.
It was revealed, in 2004 a KBR subcontractor hired 13 Nepalese men to be kitchen workers in a Jordanian hotel but seized their passports and shipped them off to work at a US military base in Iraq.
Twelve of the men were later kidnapped and executed by Islamic extremists.

KBR successfully appealed against the lawsuit and won on a legal technicality. The US Circuit Court ruled, despite KBR financing the scheme through US banks, the human trafficking principally was conducted on foreign soil. 

Throughout the life of its ASPI sponsorship KBR was also involved in a massive international bribery scheme.
Company Chairman and CEO Albert “Jack” Stanley personally oversaw the payment of $US180 million in bribes to Nigerian officials.
The bribes were paid in order to secure a $US6 billion contract in Nigeria. At the time KBR was a division of giant US defence contractor Halliburton. Former US Vice President Dick Cheney served five years as Halliburton Chairman and CEO.

Though he was not directly implicated by US authorities, the US Justice Department found, those bribes were being paid throughout Cheney’s tenure at the helm of the company.

Patriot Missile with prison labour parts from UNICOR, makers Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and US Defense Department all fund ASPI
Stanley was convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years prison in 2008, however, the US government (his company’s biggest single customer) allowed him four years to put his affairs in order before commencing his sentence at a medium-security prison in Arkansas.

Notably that prison, FCI Forrest City, houses a prison factory owned by UNICOR, the company which supplies goods to other ASPI weapons industry sponsors.
Touching on prison labour

Whilst they don’t necessarily directly profit from prison labour, other ASPI sponsors supply products and services to facilities housing prison factories.
IT company Unisys provided ASPI with sponsorship money between 2005 and 2019, it also supplies phone systems to a number of US prisons. Phones services are a major profit centre across correctional facilities. Across US jails the average cost of a local phone call is $US5.74 for 15 minutes, while in Arkansas the rate is $US24.82 per 15 minutes.

Two other ASPI sponsors, Cisco Systems and Microsoft use prisoner staffed marketing call centres operated by private company Televerde. The company hires female prisoners from Arizona and Indiana, paying them a minimum wage, of which two-thirds is withheld by their correctional institution.

However, this US prison labour program is one of the nation’s most successful, providing inmates with a genuine career path after their release. One-quarter of Televerde prison employees remain with the company after their release while only six percent return to prison versus a national average of 67 percent. 

Editor’s Note: This report uses the same research methodology employed by ASPI in the production of its reports on the use of ‘forced labour’. Information in this report was garnered from public sources including company websites and media reports. Information on commercial relationships between ASPI and governments and companies named in this article was taken from the ASPI website, ASPI Annual Reports and answers provided to an Australian Senate Estimates Committee. Corporations and governments were only named on this list in circumstances where multiple, verifiable, accounts of the use of prison and forced labour had been published and those claims had not been credibly challenged or dismissed.  
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