Security guards at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC) locked a man suffering from an electric shock in a room until he collapsed on November 15. The incident happened less than a week after the contract with the private firm that runs the centre was made public and revealed guards could be hired with no formal qualifications.
The 700-page confidential contract between the federal government and private detention firm Serco to run Australia’s immigration detention network was published by independent news website New Matilda on November 9.
It revealed Serco has no obligation to be independently audited and must not allow the media any access to information or facilities.
New Matilda said the contract also allowed Serco to hire unqualified security staff, requiring that workers needed to gain only a Certificate II qualification within six months of starting work.
Kaye Bernard from the Christmas Island Workers Union told CorpWatch that turnover of workers was high at most detention centres as workers burnt out quickly, so new underqualified staff came into the system frequently.
The Rohingya refugee in Darwin climbed an electrified fence to see friends in another part of the high-security compound.
Rohan Thwaites from the Darwin Asylum Seeker Advocacy and Support Network told Green Left Weekly that after the man received the shock, he was locked in an interview room with no medical attention or water for over an hour. He collapsed and was taken to hospital where he was treated for six hours.
Thwaites said the man was being “punished” by the guards. When he returned to NIDC, the guards again locked him in isolation.
At the same centre, a Kurdish refugee who was supposed to be under 24-hour suicide watch was able to lock himself in his room and severely hurt himself on the night on November 3.
Refugees had to cut down another Rohingya refugee when they found him hanging from a noose on November 13.
Ian Rintoul from the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition said the group believed four refugees were under “suicide watch” by Serco guards at NIDC.
But he said Serco’s suicide watch was “not about suicide prevention, it is about management damage control”.
He said refugees were put under “constant supervision and confinement”, which “is more likely to exacerbate their suicidal feelings”.
New Matilda also said the contract had a “performance and abatement” scheme, under which Serco would be rewarded or penalised for adherence to the contract.
But abatement, when Serco is found to have violated the contract, is minimal. The contract says that when Serco has indicated “significant failure” or “continuous failure”, the immigration department may fine Serco 5% of its monthly fee.
But CorpWatch said Serco had been fined for breaches “for every month that it has managed [detention centres] in Australia”. Serco was fined $4 million in first few months of this year, AAP reported on March 2.
An immigration department spokesperson told CorpWatch: “We cannot detail breaches, fines imposed or other issues related to Serco’s contract as they are considered commercial-in-confidence.”
However, an example of a “breach” may be the chronic understaffing at most detention centres.
The contract says Serco must ensure staff levels “are adequate”, but it gives no minimum ratio of staff to detainees. CorpWatch said the former manager of the Christmas Island detention centre, Ray Wiley, wrote to Serco that the centre was “typically 15 staff members short per day”.
Bernard said that during the huge Christmas Island protests by refugees earlier this year, staff were working 18-hour shifts for up to 21 days straight.
The contract also covers “duty of care” responsibilities of Serco and the immigration department, though they are vague. The contract requires “a complete view of each person in detention is maintained across multiple service providers” and that parties must “monitor the immigration and health and welfare outcomes for people in detention”.
Yet the latest events at NIDC, the recent suicide of Tamil refugee Shooty in Villawood detention centre, documented overmedication of many detainees and a prolonged mental health crises breaking out across the detention network show that “monitoring” is far from adequate.
The now publically available contract shows the continuous and serious failure of Serco to carry out any of its so-called responsibilities under the contract, so serious that refugees are trying to commit suicide daily in some centres.
However, the federal government refuses to sack Serco and take control of its detention centres. Rather, it has increased the value of the lucrative contract to almost $1 billion.
This is because the contract prevents Serco management and workers from revealing what really goes on inside detention centres, so the government does not have to answer to the crimes taking place.
All workers employed by Serco must sign a “confidentiality deed poll” and a “deed of non-disclosure”, and are prohibited from speaking to or sharing information with the media.
The contract also says Serco “must not provide access to the facilities for media visits” unless authorised. An unauthorised media visit is considered a “critical incident” in a detention centre, whereas clinical depression, childbirth and starvation for less than 24 hours are “minor”.
Under “duty of care” the contract explicitly says the department's duty of care "does not in any way detract from" the responsibilities of Serco in the contract, and liability stays with the private company.
But anonymous whistleblowers, pushed too far by Serco’s abuse of workers and refugees, have spoken out to media this year. The investigative work by New Matilda is a crucial step to challenging the transparency and accountability of the government and Serco.
And the brave, ongoing but often desperate protests by the detained refugees themselves — rooftop protests, hunger strikes, self-harm and even suicide — has brought much needed public attention to their plight.