British-based multinational corporation Serco Group is bidding for more contracts with Australian federal and state governments. Worth £4.3 billion ($6.6 billion), Serco markets itself as a “solution to government”, which takes over government services and runs them for profit.
It has run Australia’s disastrous and increasingly unstable refugee detention centres since 2009, owns two Australian super-prisons and took over Western Australia’s court security and custodial services in June.
The $210 million WA contract was handed to Serco after private prison operator Global Services Limited — or G4S — was found to have been responsible for the death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, who died of heatstroke in the back of a prison van in 2008.
This month, Serco began training new workers to transport prisoners between jails and courts.
Robert Bell, a former senior officer in Britain’s public prison service, was in the first group hired by Serco to begin the training. But he told Green Left Weekly that, after only one week of training, he decided it would be a mistake.
“Serco are now carrying on the contract with the same G4S workers, and it was their colleagues who contributed to Mr Ward’s death,” he said.
Two workers formerly employed by G4S, and overseen by supervisors transferred from Britain on temporary work junkets, ran his training.
“The contract [for ex-G4S workers] never stopped. All they did was a series of weekend inductions for the G4S workers and gave them a new uniform.
“I did the first week of the Serco training period. It was a week of spin, not training. The head of human resources from Sydney came on the first day and told us what a fantastic company Serco was.”
Bell said there was a culture of silence about Serco’s working conditions even on that first day. After Bell said he was not impressed with Serco in Britain, a supervisor told him “some things are better left unsaid” and training staff had been told to “look out for troublemakers”.
Health and safety was emphasised in induction lectures, but not put into practice. “The trainer told us you’d wait to see physical injuries before saying anything,” Bell said.
The new workers were expected to carry out six weeks’ training and then start working with inmates. But it would be a year before they were considered fully qualified, with no recognition of prior experience, and be paid only the minimum wage.
“Over here the top pay rate is $25.40 an hour,” Bell said.
When he indicated he was considering resignation, human resources ended Bell’s contract before he even put it in writing. Serco’s employment contract allowed the company to sack workers without notice. “They could sack without reason in the initial training period.”
Serco is well known for running prisons on the cheap in Britain. Bell worked for many years at a British high-security state prison where he saw firsthand how Serco cut corners on its workforce.
“Serco came to deliver prisoners and the staff were just driven to the bone, working long hours. And they were on terrible money.
“A female supervisor bragged about their 28-hour shifts during the recent [British] riots. I said I hope Serco aren’t thinking of introducing 28-hour shifts in Australia. She said, ‘we just need to get the job done’.”
Bell said government prison workers were often sent to intervene when prisoner unrest broke out. “We had to bail out private centres run by Serco, when they lost control, we’ve had to go in.”
The story has been the same in Australia. Hundreds of federal police were flown to the Christmas Island detention centre when refugee protests erupted in March.
Christmas Island Workers’ Union leader Kaye Bernard recently slammed Serco and its failures in operating the detention centre in a submission to a new parliamentary inquiry into Australia refugee detention system.
Bernard’s submission said: “Given the extent of breaches of the contract that has compromised the safety of workers, we have little or no confidence in Serco continuing the contract. We are asking for the public service to do away with privatisation. Clearly, privatisation has not worked.”
She said Serco was guilty of “significant under-reporting” and called for Serco’s $756 million government contract to be audited and its books opened, the Sydney Morning Herald said on September 4.
A coronial inquest into the suicide of Fijian man Josefa Rauluni, who jumped to his death at Villawood detention centre in September last year, heard on September 6 that Serco staff were ill-equipped to respond to the crisis.
Psychiatrist Michael Diamond told Glebe Coroner’s Court: "The interaction was dominated by intimidation and signalling the use of force as the only capability of the Serco staff.
“The conduct of the person in charge of the teams was confronting. The intimidation was relentless.
“All these actions escalated the situation.”
Bell said Serco workers were ill-equipped to deal with traumatised asylum seekers in detention. “Immigration detainees … need the expertise of well-trained, motivated and committed staff.”
But, he said, interest in making a profit from its government contracts meant Serco would “rather employ someone on the minimum wage because it’s cheaper, than actually employ workers with experience and knowledge”.