My following piece appears in the Melbourne Age today:
In 2005, Labor’s then immigration spokesman Tony Burke said detention centres for asylum seekers must never be run by private companies. “You shouldn’t have a situation”, he said, “where the level of supervision and the standard of care has anything to do with the private profits of an offshore company.”
It was a position Labor took to the 2007 election, pledging to place the nation’s centres back in public hands. The promise didn’t last long.
In 2009, Kevin Rudd’s government announced that British multinational Serco, a service-providing company dogged by human rights abuse scandals at home, had been awarded the $370 million contract to house the relatively few refugees then in detention.
Four years later, Serco controls more than 20 centres across the nation and more than 10,500 people. The contract, constantly evolving with increasing boat arrivals, is now worth more than $1.86 billion. Other companies, such as G4S, Toll Group, Lohberger Engineering, Decmil and Canstruct are revelling in Labor’s pain. Stopping the boats will be bad for business.
One of the least examined aspects of refugee policy is the companies making a killing from the government’s failure to humanely process asylum seekers. John Howard accelerated outsourcing to the point where dozens of former detainees received compensation after being assaulted or psychologically damaged, while guards still experience post-traumatic stress because they never received appropriate training.
I read almost daily emails from former local employees of some of the world’s largest private prison companies. They tell me about their nightmares and say their managers during the early 2000s would allow detention centres to descend into crisis to force Canberra’s hand and guarantee more funds to ”manage” the situation. ”The budget for reassuring Australians is bottomless,” journalist David Marr has written.
The idea that private industry is more efficient and cheaper than the public sector is an illusion.
It is adherence to neo-liberal ideology that explains why Australia doesn’t want governments in the business of public services, war, mining and increasingly aid. The state is bad. Private enterprise is good.
Corporate lobbyists grease the wheels – witness the long line of Australian politicians on ”study tours” to Britain being wined and dined by Serco, which hopes to persuade them to privatise yet another hospital or juvenile justice program – and the public is left short-changed, with lower standards of care.
During the writing of my new book, Profits of Doom, I spent time with a senior Serco manager who was disgusted with what he saw as his employer exploiting the government’s troubles over asylum seekers. He gave me internal documents that point to price-gouging, especially on ferrying refugees to different camps, understaffing, undertraining and disturbing levels of self-harm by detainees. In one month alone, January 2012, Serco made 65 per cent profit at Northern Territory’s Wickham Point, more than $2.5 million. British Serco management has a ”colonial attitude” towards Australia, the source said, and make little effort to understand local conditions.
The company is rarely fined by the government for breaches because, I was told, managers are instructed not to report problems. The bottom line is all that matters. The contract between Serco and the government – I’ve seen one of the latest versions – indicates there are few formal mechanisms that are policed to ensure an accurate reporting regime.
The contract between Canberra and G4S, the British company running Manus Island, is even vaguer and dictates no independent audits. Former G4S manager Rod St George recently told SBS TV’s Dateline there had been rapes and physical abuses in the camps.
Yet the profits keep coming. Decmil won a $137 million contract in June to build a centre on Manus. Guess who will be rapt by the prospect of housing thousands more detainees if Rudd’s ”PNG solution” is fully implemented?
My Serco source told me recently that both the company and the Immigration Department were in ”chaos” and ”can’t handle the boats”. Yet the corporation is reducing staff to ”keep profits high”, he said.
Serco says the allegations against it are unwarranted and untrue. It denies understaffing and undertraining, and says ”bad apples” among staff are disciplined or fired and that asylum seekers are treated with compassion.
In Britain, the Ministry of Justice recently found ”serious concerns” over G4S and Serco-run prisons and urged a ”halt to the privatisation of justice”. In another English case almost 10 years ago, a 100-kilogram guard employed by G4S fatally restrained a 40-kilogram boy. Rather than dismissing the man, the company promoted him to health and safety manager for G4S’ children’s services.
My Serco source says managers are routinely moved, especially at the ”most difficult centres” such as Darwin and Christmas Island. ”They’re told if they get abatements [fines from Canberra], they’ll be fired”.
In Australia, Labor and the Liberals are committed to engorging private companies in their war against asylum seekers, but accountability is close to non-existent – ask any journalist trying to get straight answers from Serco, G4S or the Immigration Department and they’ll tell you the system is gamed to obfuscate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Refugees aren’t products to be packaged at the lowest prices and sold to the highest bidder. Today, however, the only people benefiting from detainees’ misery are the corporations warehousing them.
Journalist Antony Loewenstein is the author of Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World (MUP)