MOSCOW -- A prominent member of parliament for the ruling United Russia party has drafted a bill to allow enterprises to employ thousands of convicts as a cheap workforce to build infrastructure for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The legal amendments reported on May 25 in leading business daily Kommersant create a mechanism for companies to use prisoners as laborers on work sites hundreds of kilometers from where they are incarcerated.
Any type of enterprise -- state, private, or public -- could employ prisoners facing compulsory correctional labor or serving time in penal colony settlements -- facilities used to isolate prisoners typically convicted of less severe crimes.
There are 39,500 prisoners serving sentences in 128 penal-colony settlements in the Russian Federation, according to 2015 statistics from the Federal Penitentiary Services (FSIN) cited by Kommersant.
This is just a fraction of Russia's prison population, which last year was estimated at 670,000 by the International Center for Prison Studies.
The bill was drafted by Aleksandr Khinshtein, a deputy for the ruling United Russia party and deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee for security. Khinshtein, unlike several deputies in the State Duma, does not have a reputation for making eccentric legal proposals that never see the light of day.
Khinshtein proposed offering companies tax breaks to encourage them to use prison labor. He said the cheap workforces would be particularly useful as Russia prepares to hold the 2018 World Cup, soccer's grandest global event.
Memories Of The Gulag
He told Kommersant that the prisoners would be held in "isolated areas that function like colony-settlements outside the correctional facilities with the aim of adapting the convicts to work."
"For example, if an enterprise is interested in using prisoners for work and has a hostel, then the convicts could live in that hostel but only on condition that it will be appropriately equipped and guarded by FSIN," he said.
The Federal Penitentiary Service supports the initiative, according to Kommersant, but only with the proviso that prison laborers be employed in the same federal province where they are incarcerated.
Russia's opposition condemned the initiative as reminiscent of the gulag economy under Josef Stalin that saw millions of Soviet citizens sent to camps and used as forced labor in inhospitable mines and abortive infrastructure projects.
"During a crisis, a cheap workforce is needed, and here we have it -- the simplest decision: to use prison labor, the classic Stalin model," wrote Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker and often a lone voice of dissent in Russia's lower house.
"We only need to recall how many people are serving time for trumped-up cases, how many of them are entrepreneurs -- these people are also going to be sent to take part in this slave labor," said Gudkov.
Vladimir Osechkin, head of human rights project Gulagu.Net, was quoted by Kommersant as saying: "The initiative is correct, but only if the prisoners are given the opportunity to voluntarily choose to work."
"Otherwise, we are talking about the revival of the economic model of the Gulag when all of the main construction projects of the USSR were built at the expense of the poorly paid or completely unpaid."