More than 80,000 federal inmates work for Unicor. They are paid well below minimum wage -- the scale runs from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour -- and the company does not have to provide perks like health insurance, paid vacations or 401(k) retirement plans.
The ultimate advantage is that the U.S. military and other federal agencies are required to select Unicor as their contractor as long as its bids are comparable with the competition.
Kurt Wilson, an executive at American Apparel Inc., which makes Army uniforms, said the Alabama company has had to lay off 150 people this year because of business lost to Unicor.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., also offers alternative ways to provide job training for inmates like having them work for school districts or charitable groups.
"We know that in the recovery, many new jobs are coming out of small businesses," Huizenga said. "It makes no sense to strangle them in the cradle."