The activity of British-based transnational conglomerate Serco in Australia has remained relatively unknown since it began taking government contracts in 1990. That is until the refugees locked up in its detention centres — under a $756 million government contract — started speaking out.
Horrific suicides, hunger strikes, self-harm, riotous protests, burning buildings and under-trained staff have finally put Serco in the headlines.
The unrelenting revolt of refugees in detention has called into question Serco’s huge contract with the federal government and whether a private company can be held accountable when refugees’ rights are violated.
Before visiting the Curtin detention centre in far-north Western Australia in early April as part of a solidarity convoy, Victoria Martin-Iverson told Green Left Weekly she knew the conditions would be grim.
“This is a humanitarian and psychiatric crisis,” she said. “We charge a private company with the responsibility of delivering services to people in detention, but they cut costs every way and anyway they can.
“It makes a profit off the misery of asylum seekers, off the illegal imprisonment of people who have not committed or been charged with a crime.”
In November, Serco’s contract was doubled from $370 million to $756 million. But the May 14 Herald Sun said Serco would soon be paid more than $1 billion as the cost per asylum seeker detained rises.
Serco has run Australia’s growing refugee detention system since 2009, but its global reach is frightening. With an annual profit of £4.3 billion ($6.6 billion), governments all over the world outsource to Serco.
It is one of the largest air traffic control operators in the world. It runs most of Britain's traffic lights, as well as its nuclear program, and has contracts for Britain's weapons and defence systems. It is a provider of services from security to cleaning to many private companies.
It is Britain’s largest employer of scientists.
Serco owns and runs many public transport networks, as well as hospitals and schools. It is most known for running prisons on the cheap in Britain, the US, Europe, New Zealand and Australia.
“This is a private company that very aggressively markets itself as a solution to government,” Martin-Iverson said.
“In Australia they are already bidding for child welfare services, parole, foster care, transport, custodial services, cleaning services.
“There is no single public service that the government supplies that Serco is not actively and aggressively lobbying to have the contract for.”
Serco already has contracts in Western Australia for public transport, operations of the Acacia Prison, prisoner transport services, navy vessels such as the HMAS Stirling, as well as the state’s three immigration detention centres.
In October, the WA government announced Serco will likely be handed management of the Fiona Stanley hospital, a tertiary training hospital due to be opened in 2014.
It is also bidding for several prisons across NSW including Parklea and Cessnock.
Serco’s many prisons are known for appalling violations of prisoner rights. In one case, it increased two-person cells to three by placing beds in the shared toilet.
Britain’s Children’s Commissioner Al Aynsley-Green condemned Serco for cruel treatment of children at the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in a 2009 report. The report said children were denied badly needed health care.
In 2004, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself by a shoelace in a British Serco-run juvenile prison after he was assaulted by four guards. A recent inquest into the death found that a lack of training and procedures had led to a violent and “unlawful regime” in the centre. It was Britain’s youngest death in custody.
Serco is currently bidding for child welfare services in Australia.
Serco’s refugee detention centres in Australia have also been revealed to have a profound lack of training in suicide awareness, self-harm or mental illness. And the Christmas Island and Villawood detention centres are consistently understaffed. Workers burn out and are replaced regularly.
An anonymous Serco worker at the Christmas Island detention centre told Lateline on May 5 that he was “shadowed for a week” and then tasked to work with asylum seekers. He said there was almost no training or support.
Refugee advocates have been told self-harm happens daily at the centre. ABC's 7.30 said in April that Serco workers would do “cut-downs” on their shift — of refugees trying to hang themselves — and go home with no counselling afterwards.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne said Serco staff were on a 12-hour, six-day-a-week roster that rotated day and night shifts. As a result most workers are at their wits end throughout a shift. And the people who cop their frustration and fatigue are the refugees.
The same complaints have risen from Villawood and Curtin detention centre. Both have had suicides in the past year.
The combination of traumatised asylum seekers and untrained, frustrated staff is a big reason behind the protests unfolding inside Australia's detention centres.
The immigration department has said repeatedly it is “comfortable” with how Christmas Island is being managed, often laying blame to the asylum seekers for not sitting out their long processing times.
Shutting out visitors is also common practice for Serco. It denied visits to refugees at Villawood after fierce refugee protests in late April.
The same happened to Martin-Iverson and 30 others at the Curtin detention centre, who took a convoy there over Easter. The visitors were told many lies to deny them access to the asylum seekers, who responded by staging a mass hunger strike.
Serco's goal is to stop the truth about conditions in detention centres from getting out.
Lateline has revealed that much of what happens day-to-day in detention centres is covered up or not recorded by Serco so that it can keep its lucrative contract with the government.
Lateline’s anonymous whistleblower said guards were told to not report self-harm or physical confrontations between guards and refugees. Any reports that were recorded were often sent straight to the document shredder.
This means the immigration department does not know exactly how its refugee prisons are being run by the private company it outsourced them to. Even so, Serco has been fined several times for “breach of contract”, but journalists and the public cannot even access the basic terms of the contract, and so cannot know what the “breaches” were.
When a private corporation is concentrating on profit, it will always cut costs and staffing, and will suppress vital information to avoid fines and maintain its contract. It is fundamentally wrong to outsource the detention of vulnerable people who seek and need protection.
If the government refuses to investigate, it is harder for the public to know what is taking place and how to fight it.
But refugees know, and they are trying very hard to tell the public.
It would be impossible to know the extent of Serco’s human rights abuses if not for the action of refugees. But they can only do so much on their own. It's also up to us outside to help hold Serco to account.