Hard labor is a form of work which is imposed as part of a prison sentence. The work is compulsory and people are not provided with compensation. The work itself is a form of a punishment. It is considered a form of unfree labor and is practiced in numerous countries around the world. In the eyes of the law, hard labor is not considered to be a form of slavery because it takes place within the context of a penal sentence.
It is important to distinguish hard labor from a job in prison. Many prisons allow their prisoners to take jobs and in fact encourage this practice. Prison workers are paid for their work, although they are paid much less than workers on the outside, and their participation is voluntary. While some human rights advocates have argued that prison jobs do raise some ethical issues, they are not used as a form of punishment, but rather as rehabilitation for prisoners. While the employment system in prisons may need some reform, it is not equivalent to hard labor.
Historically, some nations used hard labor as a way of accessing cheap labor for projects, especially public works projects. Instead of being transported to a distant location or held in prison, nations would work their prisoners on tasks like building and maintaining roads, creating structures, and so forth. This was also used as a threat to encourage people to comply with the law.
Hard labor was also used as a form of political punishment. Dissidents in nations like Russia and China were sentenced to labor camps in which they were often worked to death on projects meant to benefit the State. The backbreaking work was intended to break the spirits of prisoners and it was also used to threaten their families. If families spoke out about the imprisonment of people for their political values, the government might transfer their loved ones to especially grueling and harsh labor camps.
There are clear ethical issues involved with hard labor. Laborers do not get to choose the type of labor they engage in, let alone set their own hours. The unpaid and compulsory nature of the work raises many concerns about people who are worried about human rights and penal reform issues.