The following exclusive, written with Paul Farrell, appears today in Australian magazine New Matilda:
The Gillard Government’s contract with Serco imposes no initial training requirements for security guards, according to documents obtained under FOI – and that’s causing damage to asylum seekers and to the guards themselves
Serco security guards in immigration detention centres are not required to hold any formal security qualifications for six months, according to its contract with the Immigration Department (DIAC).
The contract, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, reveals that the agreement between Serco and the Immigration Department only requires security guards to “obtain a Certificate Level II in Security Operations within six months of commencement”.
A Certificate II is the minimum security requirement for unarmed security guards, and many training organisations fit the entire course into just five days.
In the recent parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s immigration detention network this issue was raised repeatedly and DIAC officials refused to clearly answer questions about the qualifications of security guards at detention centres operated by Serco.
This is what Labor Senator Trish Crossin asked DIAC representatives:
“If you have, for example, a security guard employed by Serco at your detention centres — that is their job description — what level of qualification are they expected to have?”
A straightforward question. This was their response:
Ms [Jackie] Wilson: We would have to check that. It is a cert II or III.
Mr [Andrew] Moorhouse: There is a cert, whether it is a cert IV or a cert III in security. They are required to have the training for their particular role.
Senator Crossin: What is the minimum? What is the level of classification that each Serco person has? What is the job description and what is their base qualification?
Mr [John] Metcalfe: Essentially they are role based descriptions and qualifications appropriate for those roles. We can take that on notice.
However, New Matilda can reveal that the contract lists only two categories of guards — general security and managerial — and that general security guards are employable at the outset with no security qualifications whatsoever.
This raises serious questions about the capacity of Serco guards to manage detention centres effectively. The recent riots at Villawood Detention Centre and at Darwin Detention Centre last year highlight a growing trend of Serco staff being unable to adequately manage conflict situations.
Some guards have already blown the whistle on the consequences of the lack of training, and these reports just keep coming. The NT News recently reported that Serco staff working in Darwin’s detention centre are often taking stress leave due to their working conditions. The paper noted that the Certificate II in security operations required by staff to begin work is the same as pub bouncers. One mental health nurse told the NT News that, “we were told at our induction that (Serco workers) could have been making cappuccino or pizza the week before they started. Basically they are not trained.”
These conditions are taking their toll. We have spoken to a number of both former Serco staff and workers of its sub-contractor MSS who have detailed exposure to refugee trauma. Many of them reported developing mental health problems and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
According to the contract, Serco must ensure that all personnel attend “mental health awareness training prior to commencing work at the facility” and “a refresher course every two years”.
However, it is not specific in its requirements that staff be properly trained for stressful situations with vulnerable asylum seekers. The recent suicides at detention centres across the country highlight the need for security officers to be trained in handling such complex, stressful situations.
During the parliamentary inquiry, DIAC officers continued to stress the induction training that Serco officers were required to undertake. However, according to the contract, this training does not involve any security specific skills:
“1.1 Induction Training
All Service Provider Personnel must have completed Induction training before they commence
duty at a Facility that includes instruction in:
(a) cultural awareness;
(b) the Immigration Detention Values;
(c) conflict de-escalation;
(d) duty of care responsibilities;
(e) communication and interaction with Department Personnel, Stakeholders and other
(f) problem solving and decision-making in the workplace;
(g) skills on interacting with People in Detention; and
(h) record keeping procedures.”
This is a vague set of criteria for training — especially in comparison to the detail set out in other parts of the contract including, for example, an inventory of all loose assets right down to knives and forks.
NM asked DIAC about the terms of the contract relating to security guards. Why were the training requirements not more stringent — and why was the induction training so loosely described? At publication no reply has been received.
Increasing reports of violence and self harm by immigration detainees indicate that there is a growing problem in Australia detention centres. The question for Serco and DIAC is whether these problems could be mitigated with better induction training and more stringent requirements of the staff paid to work with these most vulnerable people.